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Logistics for the Armchair General
on June 28, 2005
It has been said that armchair generals think of strategy, whereas professionals study logistics. If that is true, Martin van Creveld has written a book on logistics for armchair generals.
Those familiar with military history and strategic studies are likely familiar with Van Creveld and his proclivity for making bombastic and sweeping assertions on the nature of warfare. "Supplying War" is no exception. (By way of example, he labels Operation Overlord "an exercise in logistic pusillanimity unparalleled in modern military history.")
Originally published in 1976, "Supplying War" was the first book to directly address the critical, but often ignored issues of logistics in warfare with a primary objective of identifying key themes and trends across time. Even Van Creveld's most trenchant critics - and he has many in the academic community - concede that his work was original and reached a large audience, and has therefore largely defined the debate on the subject.
Van Creveld reviews seven historical case studies (17th century feudal warfare, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the German invasion of France in 1870 and 1914, and Russia in 1940, Rommel's 1942 North African campaign and the Normandy invasion of 1944) and comes to the following general conclusion: In pre-modern military history food (including animal fodder) was the primary logistical concern and most armies were forced to keep moving to survive by living off the land; but the rise of the modern, mechanized army inverted the paradigm, as ammunition and fuel supplies became paramount and armies were increasingly tied to rear-area depots for their survival.
"Supplying War" is as interesting and easy to read as a book on such an inherently dull topic can be. Given the broad impact the book has had serious students of military history will want to read it if only to understand Van Creveld's perspective and arguments.
I would add, however, that no one should read "Supplying War" without also consulting the extremely thoughtful and hard-nosed critique of it written by John Lynn in "Feeding Mars: Logistics in Western Warfare from the Middle Ages to the Present." Lynn's essay points out a number of serious flaws in Van Creveld's approach and conclusions. For instance, Lynn notes that Van Creveld conveniently avoids the issue of naval logistics, which happens to undermine his argument that military forces have only recently been engaged in serious logistical planning. Unlike armies, from at least the time of the Spanish Armada navies have had to engage in sophisticated logistical planning to ensure they had enough food, water and ammunition to complete their mission, and with the arrival of steam power they had to worry about fuel as well.
Lynn points out a number of other convenient omissions in Van Creveld's work, such as the successful use of railroads and steamboats for front-line supply in the US Civil War, the critical and successful role trans-Atlantic and -Pacific US logistics support played in both the First and Second World Wars, and the political constraints on 17th Century warfare that inhibited operations much more than logistical considerations. However, the most convincing (and damning) scrutiny of "Supply War" comes in a section titled "A problem with numbers?" in which Lynn comes very close to accusing Van Creveld of intellectual and academic dishonesty by twisting or misrepresenting quantitative data on the purported rise of ammunition and fuel as a percentage of the overall supply requirements and the selective quotation of certain sources.
In closing, add this book to your reading list, read it carefully and skeptically, consult Lynn's analysis closely and draw your own conclusions.