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Jewish World Review May 5, 1999 /19 Iyar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg
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A Tale of two colonels

(JWR) ---- (
THIS IS A STORY about men who think too much, and see too far. Their sort is always an irritation to entrenched systems, to conventional ways and hardened habits. They never take "because it's our policy, that's why!'' for an answer. They probe deeper, they wonder what if ... and they try to come up with responses to problems that others not only don't see but don't want to see.

There's no doubt about it: Their sort is a trouble to the mediocre, who always resent talent, especially when it is combined with vision. And the establishment will strike back. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for the crime of foreseeing the role of air power in modern warfare, and Hyman Rickover was never forgiven by the Navy brass for his single-minded dedication to nuclear-powered subs.

This is a story about the 1930s and the 1990s, and about the kind of staff officers who jeopardize their careers by thinking -- thinking a little too much, and seeing a little too far.

This is a story about two colonels. The first was a young, autocratic French officer between the wars who early on understood that his country's obsession with defense had become an invitation to disaster. He dared to challenge the prevalent Maginot mentality of his time, with its emphasis on fixed and heavily fortified lines of defense. He saw how victory in the First World War had taught the French the wrong lesson, and made them ripe for conquest in the Second.

This is also a story about an American officer who, soon after the Gulf War, understood what a treacherous teacher victory can be. He foresaw that the military doctrine and organization that had triumphed in the Persian Gulf might not be as applicable in other times, other places.

The Frenchman's name was Charles Andre Joseph Marie de Gaulle, who would go on to save the honor of France in 1940 and, it could be argued, France itself in 1958, when he rescued it from indecision and created the Fifth Republic. (Remarkably enough for the French, that No. 5 is still in place.)

Some think of de Gaulle, to use the title of his most recent biography, as "The Last Great Frenchman.'' But when we encounter him in this story, it is only 1934, and he is only a promising staff officer.

A very promising staff officer. Indeed, he is Marshal Petain's pet and an odds-on favorite to become the next chief of the general staff. A thinker and fighter, someone who learned from every experience, the colonel had fought gallantly in the First War -- and continued to learn in a German prison camp after being bayoneted and taken prisoner.

Young de Gaulle would learn still more as an adviser to the Polish army in 1920. That's when he came to fully appreciate the decisive force that fast-moving cavalry could prove when he saw the Bolsheviks' Caucasian Cossacks drive the Poles almost back to Warsaw. And he imagined what such a force might achieve, rapidly, if it were motorized, armored and free to strike on its own -- without the impediment of the infantry then used to shield tanks. In short, he was thinking about modern armored brigades and divisions.

Unfortunately for his career, Colonel de Gaulle started saying what he thought. Worse, he wrote a book -- more of a tract, really -- explaining that mobility would prove the key to the next war, not Marshal Petain's reliance on defensive firepower. His (ital)Vers l'Armee de Me tier(unital) appeared in 1934 and sold only 750 copies in France -- though many more were doubtless bought by students of warfare in Germany.

The book's only significant result was to lose the young lieutenant colonel the old marshal's patronage. He was passed over for promotion and found himself off the general staff and out in the field. It was the Germans who would shortly prove the efficacy of his theory; they called it blitzkrieg.

The more things change, the less the military mind does. In 1995, an American colonel named Douglas Macgregor, who had led armored cavalry in the key engagement of the Gulf War, wrote a little book analyzing that victory and drawing some unsettling lessons.

The colonel noted how long it had taken to assemble an American army in the Saudi desert, and how fortunate the Allies were not to have been attacked during that build-up. Lest we forget, it took six long, vulnerable months before our ground forces were ready to take the swift, decisive offensive.

This colonel wrote a little book about it, advocating a different, more mobile kind of Army. He titled it "Breaking the Phalanxes.'' His idea: Replace the Army's current bulky divisions with smaller, much more mobile and independent units. Call them combat groups. Some would teem with tanks and artillery, others would travel light via helicopter. Light or heavy, all these forces could be moved by air -- quickly, decisively, alone or in tandem. They would be ready for the kind of civil insurrection out of control that now threatens the peace and stability of Europe.

A general or two liked this young colonel's ideas, and even bruited them about, but nothing came of them. Even those who saw some merit in the colonel's suggestions said they would have to wait a generation or two to be carried out.

Establishments -- whether military or corporate, political or religious -- tend to resist change. Change is stress. Change is trouble. Meeting it might require thought, even action. Habit, on the other hand, is comfortable, even assuring -- until apathy brings disaster.

To quote one prudently anonymous staff officer: "What's the difference between `Jurassic Park' and the Army? One is an amusement park dominated by dinosaurs. The other is just a movie.''

Douglas Macgregor is currently on NATO's planning staff, passed over for a brigade command -- three times now. That'll teach him to think and, even worse, write. It's an old military maxim: Publish and perish. His ideas now languish, waiting to be carried out after the next disastrous defeat. Maybe after Kosovo? Colonel Macgregor, meet Colonel de Gaulle.

Recommended reading: "The Last Great Frenchman'' by Charles Williams, "Breaking the Phalanxes'' by Douglas MacGregor or Thomas Ricks' story about Colonel Macgregor in the Wall Street Journal of April 16.


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1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
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10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
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10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
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9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
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9/07/98: Toward impeachment
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8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
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8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
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6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate