Is blitzkrieg enough?

Did the Germans win WW II?

Maneuver warfare, a modern updating of the infiltration tactics that led to the stunning German successes in 1939 through late 1941, is a better way to fight opposing military forces: Create a gap in the enemy defenses, penetrate into his rear areas, cause panic and chaos, and exploit before he can figure out what’s going on. Numbers become irrelevant and can even be a vulnerability once panic sets in.

Then what? Maneuver warfare advocates might say, “Not our job,” and they would be correct. But you’d like to think that all this fighting has accomplished something more than killing opposing troops. This is where Boyd’s insights prove useful because he considered the entire range of conflict, from the battlefield to the resulting peace. Surveying the spectrum of war, he concluded that although you can win through attrition warfare, maneuver has advantages:

  • On one hand, as shown on the previous chart, the national goal and grand strategy tend to be constructive in nature. On the other hand, the strategic aim, strategy, grand tactics, and tactics are destructive in nature and operate over a shorter time frame.
  • In this sense, the upper two and the latter four notions, as expressed, appear to be in disharmony with one another. Yet, application of these latter four strategic and tactical notions [CR note: essentially, maneuver warfare] permit real leadership to avoid high attrition, avoid widespread destruction, and gain a quick victory. This, combined with shattered cohesion, paralysis, and rapid collapse demonstrated by the existing adversary regime, makes it appear corrupt, incompetent, and unfit to govern. [CR note again: so far, so good for ISIS]
  • Under these circumstances, leaders and statesmen offering generous terms can form the basis for a viable peace. In this sense, the first two and the latter four notions can be in harmony with one another. (Patterns of Conflict, p. 142)

Obviously, the last bullet was not what the Nazis had in mind for the conquered nations, especially on the eastern front, and from their videos, it doesn’t seem to be ISIS’s intention, either.

Nazi policies towards the defeated populations would have left the German army with its hands full, even after national governments surrendered or were eliminated. Martin van Creveld observed that had the Germans won and then partially demobilized, a million and a half troops would have been trying to control upwards of 300 million potential insurgents all over Europe. He concluded:

Like every occupation army that followed it, the Wehrmacht would have found most of its powerful weapons useless, or nearly so. … In all probability, the Germans would have floundered about just as subsequent conquerors did.” (The Changing Face of War, pp. 215-218.)

The end result would have been that the Germans would have been unable to keep most of their conquered territories. Interestingly, a senior German panzer commander, Hermann Balck, told Boyd the same thing, and, as van Creveld noted, Hitler himself had made a similar observation about the British Empire — and Hitler was, of course, proved right.

In other words, excellence on the battlefield can be trumped by failure of grand strategy. Chuck Spinney has a superb description of why this is so, and of grand strategy in general, on his blog at  I recommend you pause here and read his article carefully because it explains what is going to happen next.

The typical fate of occupiers in a hostile society will befall ISIS / ISIL / DAI-ISH. Iraq is not Saudi Arabia, and most Iraqis are not salafists.  Iraqis are a more urban society, and Iraqi women and religious minorities are much more used to the freedoms they enjoyed under the Ba’athists.  This will lead to a period of bloody guerrilla warfare between the ISIS occupiers and elements in the population who oppose their ideology. I’m assuming here that enough of the old Ba’athist structure survived, perhaps augmented by the remnants of the “Sons of Iraq,” to form the vanguard of the guerrilla movement. (Boyd has something to say about that process, also — see Patterns, pp. 93-99)

In the meantime, the Iraqi Army will continue to melt away until a capable core emerges to defend Baghdad (shades of the defense of Moscow in the winter of 1941!), but what ISIS gains through tactical, operational, and strategic superiority, they will lose because their grand strategy will fail. Not enough Iraqis will decide to become or to support the salafists, and ISIS rule will shrink to the conservative, rural hinterlands.

9 thoughts on “Is blitzkrieg enough?

  1. then 3/4ths of all German military resources are tied up in Russia (and 2/3rds of the Japanese military resources are tied up in china). From the law of unintended consequences, in Iraq invasion, forces are told to bypass ammo dumps looking for (non-existent, fabricated) WMDs … later when they go back, a million metric tons have disappeared. IEDs then have large artillery shells … even taking out M1s.

  2. I’m not sure generosity is a factor. Taking the example of the Ukraine, when the Wehrmacht rolled in, they did not face initial resistance from the populace (presumably due to the brutal treatment so recently endured under Stalin). It was when the Nazis showed their true colors that the resistance began.

    It seems noteworthy that the German actions that triggered resistance were not greatly different from the actions of Stalin that did not. The main difference (*) seems to be that with the Soviet government still in play, the Ukrainians of the 1940s had reason to hope that resistance would yield something where those in the 1930s had none.

    * I’m unsure of whether the ethic difference (German oppressors vs Russian oppressors) matters much to ethnic Ukrainians.

    • Gene,

      Thanks – good point. Boyd was contrasting the actions of the victors after WWI and WWII, for example, in the general problem of state-vs-state conflict.

      Where non-state actors become involved, the situation is less clear. Occupations, though, seem rarely to meet the criterion of “generous terms.”

      It’s also worth noting that before the end of the Soviet Union, there was no state of Ukraine*. Before that, the region had been an SSR within the Soviet Union, and before that, various collections of administrative regions largely within the Russian empire, but also including parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Crimea, of course, was transferred from the Russian SSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954, a change that didn’t make a whole lot of difference until 1991. So it isn’t entirely clear whether the Soviets occupied Ukraine or re-absorbed it into the Russian Empire.

      Spinney has a nice set of maps that illustrate the creation of the modern state of Ukraine:


      * This is not entirely true. There was, for a brief period after WWI, a Ukrainian People’s Republic on what is now Ukraine. See

      • Great slide show.

        Agreed re: the political history of Ukraine, which was why I chose ‘ethnic’ to describe the difference between it and its German and the Russian overlords. The area has been part of so many different polities (even into the last couple hundred years) that it lacks any real national tradition of its own.

  3. Great post Chet. Over on facebook, we have been discussing ISIS as well and your posts are extremely helpful in evaluating what they are doing. One interesting bit is that the Long War Journal just did some analysis that supports what you are talking about. They are even predicting a Sunni versus Sunni fight, all because ISIS will more than likely impose their archaic version of sharia law on the population. That, and ISIS will really tick people off when they start imposing taxes and extorting the local businesses.

    “Given time, this ideological gulf between mainstream Sunnis and the ISIS will undoubtedly manifest itself in greater conflict, as it did in Iraq as early as 2005, and as it currently does in Syria, where fellow Sunnis (including jihadist groups) have been battling the ISIS because of its greed and harsh ideology. But history is not on the Sunni nationalists’ side. In the early years of the Iraq War, unsupported tribal “Awakenings” against al Qaeda in Iraq repeatedly failed; leaders and movements who resisted the group were assassinated or driven into exile. And the current incarnation of ISIS, flush with international support, recruits, thousands of jihadists freed from Iraq’s prisons, and half a billion dollars looted from Mosul’s banks, is stronger than it has ever been.”

  4. Conversely, the Anschluss into Austria worked very well. That was because Austria was close, relatively small, and – most important – politically and culturally compatible.

    At issue is to what extent ISIS actually is extreme by Iraqi Sunni standards. If reports that Baathist elements actually are behind these attacks attributed to ISIS, then the movement may be palatable.

    Otherwise, they would be rogue invaders. Much as the United States was in 2003. Note, however, that rogue invaders, such as the Mongols in China or the Soviets in Eastern Europe, can last for decades or more than a century. ( One of the great puzzles of history is why Islam, following its original conquests of the 630’s, took. Why did not the conquered Christian and Zoroastrian populations ultimately repel them? )

    • Duncan,


      “At issue is to what extent ISIS actually is extreme by Iraqi Sunni standards.” Indeed. It’s what distinguishes liberators from occupiers, although it’s not uncommon for liberators to become occupiers if they stay long enough.

      “Why did not the conquered Christian and Zoroastrian populations ultimately repel them?” Some Arabs will tell you that these folks found life under the caliphs to be better than under the old empires. Specifically, pay the head tax and be left alone. After a while, many voluntarily converted. Oddly, as I recall, the early regimes discouraged conversion because it cost them money.

      My guess is that religious minorities (and women) aren’t going to find things quite so easy under ISIS rule.


  5. As for occupiers. The Kurds have the Turks right behind them, the Persians have the Chinese right behind them, the Syrians have the Russians right behind them, the Kingdom has the Americans…wait! Did I say Americans?

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