An exercise in armchair generalship (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 18)

Last Thursday, I have the class the following assignment:

As we discussed in class, this week’s assignment is to put yourself into Moltke’s shoes and come up with an alternative strategy—whether in the initial invasion of France or in managing the offensive once Joffre ordered the Allied retreat—and *then* analyze whether your alternative might’ve made much difference in the outcome of the invasion of France.

and the results were, I must say, a blast to analyze, which we did in class today. The point of the exercise was to hone skills at thinking strategically—weighing options and alternatives against the other side’s likely responses, evaluating relative costs, risks, and benefits, etc.—all in the service of preparing us for thinking about the onset of attrition when we discuss the First Battle of Ypres next week.

Recognizing (a) the imperative of defeating France quickly before committing to a long war against Russia and (b) the near impossibility in the war’s early years of turning local successes into anything more than temporary gains, it became apparent that, whatever the shortcomings of Moltke’s revision of the Schlieffen Plan and its implementation, Germany really didn’t have much more than a lot of bad options. Fighting an opponent who’s wily and able to fight back, of course, has a lot to do with that, which made the exercise in analyzing these alternatives challenging and, again, quite a lot of fun.

For your viewing pleasure, here are the alternatives the class proposed:

  1. For Moltke, be decisive. Period. And stop the waffling.
  2. Invade France directly, leaving Belgium out of the picture (and perhaps the British out of the early part of the war).
  3. Move the headquarters, initially at Koblenz and only later in Luxembourg, closer to the front.
  4. Don’t retreat in the face of the impending Allied counterattack on the Marne. Just roll the dice again and keep moving forward.
  5. Don’t bother diverting troops from the right wing to besiege Antwerp.
  6. After the Allied retreat, hold on the right, then make main focus the middle of the French lines and try to punch through.
  7. Honor Schlieffen’s original plan, swinging wider and going through the Netherlands, too.
  8. Rather than retreat, order First Army farther west to smash French Sixth before it can form.
  9. Send High Seas Fleet down the coast towards the Low Countries, diverting the Royal Navy and making the Brits more hesitant to commit the BEF.
  10. Go for Paris through the BEF, while First Army holds French Sixth.
  11. Draw the French into Alsace-Lorraine with a strategic retreat to fortified cities, then send the right wing into France once Joffre overextends.

I won’t go into the costs, risks, and benefits of each alternative. Suffice it to say that discussion was lively, and I feel like the strategic way of thinking and explaining politics is starting to sink in. This, of course, means that we get to spend more and more time on productive thought experiments like this as the course goes on—that is, as the Western Front stabilizes and I run out of “new” things to talk about…

The curious(ly limited) naval war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 17)

The pre-war naval race and general British mastery of the seas notwithstanding, one of the more puzzling aspects of the First World War is the absence of large-scale naval campaigns. Neither the British nor the Germans committed to a full-scale naval war for mastery of the North Sea—which could’ve been pretty valuable for both of them—and Germany chose not to use its U-boats to their greatest (i.e., unrestricted) potential in 1914. While their armies clashed on a nearly apocalyptic scale on the Continent, their navies were largely sidelined. But why? We spent time in class today on this very puzzle, and, as luck would have it, I got to work out some ideas from a model that I’ll be workshopping tomorrow with the IR group here at Texas.

The answer, I think, lies in recognizing that fighting is not only costly upfront but also in terms of military capabilities or assets that, once lost, aren’t easily replaced; in other words, for both the British and German navies, using it also meant losing it. Stevenson captures this logic well:

The weaker side had little motive to risk annihilation, nor the stronger to risk nullifying its lead (p. 199)

Had the Germans and British gone all out in fighting for control of the North Sea, the costs in terms of forces-in-being might’ve been substantial. The Germans, of course, might’ve lost so much of their weaker force that, even in a short-term victory, they’d be unable to deter future moves towards their coast. Likewise, the British were stretched across the globe, protecting shipping and controlling the worldwide network of coaling stations that allowed them to exert pressure on neutrals—committing forces to replace any lost in a major naval war or to beef up coastal defense at home might’ve compromised this position. So, given dubious gains—the promise of blockade without a naval war, the difficultly of an amphibious assault on northern Germany, the British ability to rebuild lost ships in the medium term—it looks like both sides found plenty of reasons to keep their naval forces intact and keep this one small aspect of the war from approaching totality.

We drew the following game to capture the situation,

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 1.58.25 PM

which actually shows that the no-fighting equilibrium isn’t unique. Even if each side wanted to husband its naval capabilities, it would’ve fought had it believed that the other would’ve. That seems trivial, but it also explains some interesting features of the war, such as the occasional battle—Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank in 1914—but the lack of sustained campaigns and each side’s willingness to refuse to press the attack on a grad scale, even if the other side was on the run. Which equilibrium prevails—fighting or no-fighting—depends on each side’s beliefs about the other’s strategy, and these can be fragile things in the fog of war…which I guess in the North Sea is both figurative and literal. When beliefs about the other side’s likely strategy were stable, we saw a pretty persistent no-fighting equilibrium, but all it would take for a switch to the occasional battle was a change in beliefs about likely strategies, not a change in the actual strategic situation.

Of course, this leaves aside the question of why Germany kept the U-boats restrained during 1914, but we’ll get to that soon enough…

Strains in the great Allied retreat (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 15)

After following the German army through Belgium and into northern France last Tuesday, today we picked up the story of the great Allied retreat, which Joffre ordered once he realized just how far north the German right wing was swinging. While this maneuver would ultimately set up the pivotal Allied stand at the Battle of the Marne, it wasn’t all sunshine and light for the British and French as they repositioned their forces. General Sir John French, in particular, the commander of the BEF, was—maddeningly, to his French allies—hostile to the idea of keeping his relatively small force in the line, even as he occupied territory to the southeast of Paris, and therefore critical to defending the city and supporting the right flank of the newly formed French Sixth Army northeast of Paris (of which Germany was fatefully unaware).

It’s easy to blame French’s hesitance to engage the BEF on the man himself, but that’s probably too easy; allies face problems like this all the time, where they’d prefer to shift the burden of military effort onto their partners, who also share a common goal in the outcome (in this case, preventing the fall of France). The result, of course, is a potential failure to provide that collective good; partners slack off, under-providing the requisite effort, resulting in a tragedy that could be avoided—if only partners contributed to the common cause. This, of course, is an example of the classic collective action problem, which exists when the benefits of cooperation are diffuse and the costs of cooperation concentrated, leading sometimes to tragic failures to produce a public good; if my partner contributes, I’d rather save the effort, and if my partner won’t contribute, I won’t waste the effort either, leading to collective failures to produce the social optimum. (And, if we’re being honest, lots of disingenuous finger-pointing.)

We’re familiar with this in the context of defense spending in large alliances, failures to balance against rising threats to the balance of power, consumers losing out to producers over free trade, and even the establishment of effective regimes for emissions standards. However, the case of allies facing cooperative difficulties—even at the hour of greatest peril, when Germany was within shouting distance of ending France as a great power and jeopardizing British access to the Continent—brings home just how much collective action problems depend on common interests to be a problem in the first place. In fact, it’s the very commonality of interests that makes free-riding tempting; too often, folks slip into attributing cooperative difficulties to different interests, but that’s not an issue of collective action, which results from everyone (a) wanting the same collective good and (b) wanting to save the costs of providing it.

Of course, Sir John didn’t get his way, allowing us also to talk about how collective action problems often get solved. In this case, it was a particular form of selective incentive—some reward for cooperation that accrues on top of the collective good—which was twofold for the British: (a) gaining experience for the BEF, whose members would help train the New Army that Kitchener was raising back home, and (b), perhaps more important, the promise of a spot at the table when the peace would be hammered out after the war. Such orders came, tellingly, not from Sir John—whose goal was the preservation of the BEF by shifting some of the burden onto France—but from the government, whose priorities were of somewhat broader scope…and who knew that even a small force on the Continent would keep doors down the road.

Ultimately, we made a critical point about collective action problems: they’re not caused by divergent goals, but they’re very often solved by them.

behind the lines I: the laws of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 14)

While we’ve spent some time talking about international law as it applies to the rights of neutral states, today we tackle a different aspect of the laws of war: limitations on violence during wartime. Where the Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality and the Hague Convention spelling out the rights of neutrals more broadly are designed to govern the relationships between belligerents and non-belligerents, we’re concerned today with laws that apply to the states doing the fighting—that is, laws that apply to the actual belligerents.

We’ve spent some time talking about and establishing patterns of variation across theaters, belligerents, and (potential) victims in the treatment of civilians—particularly the Eastern Front and Belgium thus far—but to explain why some belligerents honor the laws of war while others don’t, and even to explain why the same belligerents honor the law in some cases and not others, we need two things: a theory of war-fighting and a theory of the laws of war. (Without either, of course, we’d be more than a little lost in explaining the puzzle.) In that sense, today is about developing a theory largely devoid of the rich historical detail we’ve been immersed in for the last few lectures, in large part because (as you could probably sense from the lecture on bargaining and war) we’re graduating to more sophisticated theoretical constructs as the class goes on.

Using Morrow’s theory of the law of war as our starting point, we build intuition over how ratification serves as a public signal that coordinates expectations over (a) what constitutes and violation and (b) what the likely response is to violations. In the case of civilian and POW treatment, where we’ll focus today, laws are enforced by threats of reciprocity: abuse my soldiers/civilians, and I’ll do the same to yours. Tracking the credibility of threats of reciprocity over time and space—that is, whether on the offensive or defensive, on foreign or home soil, or fighting one belligerent as opposed to another—we can generate some expectations over when and where the battlefield will be more or less restrained…expectations that we can then evaluate against the historical record as we encounter it moving forward.

Giving away too much at this point isn’t pedagogically brilliant (this will go live right before class starts), but I will say this: all the major belligerents had, by the war, ratified the relevant treaties limiting violence in war. However, we do see interesting variation in (a) which belligerents can and can’t threaten reciprocity, (b) which belligerents are viewed as likely to be restrained ex ante, (c) the political institutions of the belligerents, and (d) the outcome variable: the scale of civilian atrocities (worst in the East, not as bad in the West). All of this information should, in a few weeks’ time, lead us to answers to some pressing questions. Why was the Eastern Front so much worse on civilians than the Western Front (especially puzzling with Germany involved on both fronts)? Why did German treatment of civilians improve markedly as the army moved from Belgium into France? And…what kept violations from spiraling as far and as extensively as they ultimately would on the same ground in the Second World War?

Should be fun. (The learning, of course. Not the stories of atrocities.)

The opening of the war in the West (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 13)

Today, we looked ex post at the outcome of the Colonel Blotto game played between France and Germany on the Western Front in August & September of 1914. France, hoping to hold and then beat back the German army while the Tsarist army mobilized on the other side of the Continent, aimed to match the Germans on their axis of advance—making it a natural fit as the defender in the game. Germany, on the other hand, was the attacker in the game, hoping to sweep past the main body of the French defenses and to prevent France from matching its move. In this case, the best way to play the game is to be unpredictable, secretive, or even dividing one’s attention across priorities (which Moltke’s reinforcement of the left wing certainly looks like after the fact), blunting any advantage your opponent would gain from knowing your likely action—but simultaneously accepting that your opponent, secretive and unpredictable in roughly equal measure, can do the same to you.

So, what does it mean for Colonel Blotto’s morning after? Well, both sides gamble, but only one side can win—Germany managed to sweep well north of the French thrust into Germany and the Ardennes dictated by Joffre’s Plan XVII, crashing through Belgium and eventually menacing Paris—thanks to a very information-poor environment. (A poverty of information, I should note, caused both by the state of technology and belligerent incentives in the Blotto game to deny one another information.) In the end, Joffre looks less like he made a mistake (he will, after all, redeem himself with the Grand Retreat), and Moltke less like a strategic genius. Both commanders faced a similar problem and made a structurally similar choice—making the famous problems of the fog of war quite obvious. In fact, the Colonel Blotto game shows how, in many cases, belligerents contribute to the fog of war quite on purpose.

On a teaching note, we also went over the students’ answers to last week’s assignment, which asked them to identify what had puzzled them so far—and what we might go on to cover later in the course. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Why did armies adjust so slowly to the realities of the modern battlefield and its industrial firepower?
  2. Why did Germany fight on even once British intervention became inevitable?
  3. Why did Belgium even bother fighting back?
  4. Why was Austria go into the field with an army that proved so ineffective?
  5. Why did Austria try to invade Serbia again, after first being thrown back and with Russia entering the war? Why not wait for German help?
  6. Why do states abrogate or fail to honor their treaties (looking at you, Italy)?
  7. How do individual soldiers exhibit behaviors (atrocities against citizens) they’d never show in peacetime?
  8. Why did the UK send the British Expeditionary Force to the Continent when it might’ve profitably specialized in the naval war?
  9. Why did Austria-Hungary plan to partition Serbia rather than simply absorb it?
  10. Why did Germany even bother retaining the Dual Monarchy as an ally?

It was a great discussion, and if any of these interest you, keep an eye on this space as we get deeper into the semester…

An assignment (WWI in Real Time)

I’m conferencing today, which means no lecture—but also means that I gave the class a writing assignment. Here it is:

Looking back on the course, particularly the readings, write a couple of paragraphs on one event, outcome, or choice that we’ve not yet covered that nonetheless puzzles you. (In other words, identify something that you were surprised by, something that you’d clearly have reasons to expect the opposite in terms of what happened.) Why is it puzzling?

The goal, of course, is to get them thinking like political scientists: being puzzled, identifying questions worth asking and answering, and then beginning the process of building explanations. Effectively, they’re doing what I do with the readings each day, “Wait, why would this happen? Let’s start writing down a game…”

Back on the horse next Tuesday…

Fighting “unwinnable” wars (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 10)

I promised my students at the beginning of the semester that we’d cover lots of ground when it came to theories of politics, and after covering labor movements last Thursday, we swung back today to puzzling over some of the earliest fighting in the war. We finally got onto the battlefield, you might say—looking in particular at Austria’s ill-fated 1914 campaign against Serbia. Two facts were of note in the early-going, because they’ll pop up again: atrocities against civilians and the near impossibility of achieving a breach against well-positioned modern firepower. However, our puzzle today was a simple one: why do some countries, like Serbia in 1914, fight wars that they don’t seem to have any reasonable chance of winning?

We developed two answers, familiar to readers of this blog, based on the idea that war is costly, destructive, wasteful—which gives even strong states incentives to strike bargains that avoid it, to say nothing of weak states that already expect to do poorly on the battlefield. Put differently, after a war, it’s pretty easy for the erstwhile belligerents to consider the treaty that ended their war, then look back and say, “Why didn’t we sign a treaty on these terms back then, before all the bloodletting?” We developed two answers, based on Fearon’s explanations for war.

First, it’s possible that, if states disagree about the likely outcome of a war, they can’t agree on what bargains are mutually preferable to it. In that case, my opponent may propose terms that I find unacceptable, leading me to fight, because I was unable to disabuse her of her belief that she could best me on the battlefield. Even if I’m relatively weak in this case, I’m not expecting a fight to the finish, because—once my relative strength has been demonstrated—my opponent has an incentive to propose terms that reflect her updated beliefs about my relative strength, ending the war and saving further bloodletting. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? One answer is that I might fight to prove I deserve better terms than my opponent deigns to offer me.

Given Austria’s surprise at (a) Serbian fighting prowess and (b) assertive Russian intervention, we could imagine just such an informational component to the fight; Austria thought it could win and win easily, while Germany kept the Russians at bay, leading it to make a pretty outlandish set of demands of its smaller neighbor. However, we also know that some Austrian leaders wanted to make sure that their demands of Serbia were rejected, which means that it wasn’t just an Austrian underestimation of her ally’s strength (though you’ve got to think that made them optimistic enough to aim for “crushing” as opposed to merely punishing Serbia). We’ve mentioned before that Austria’s motives were preventive; it wished to fight Serbia now, averting a future in which a growing Serbia might further undermine the Dual Monarchy’s control over its Slav nationalities. In that sense, Serbia’s decision was made for it, but the reasoning still applies to weak states quite well.

Here’s our second answer. If Serbia accepted everything in the Austrian ultimatum, it would cede parts of its own sovereign authority—judicial and police powers, in particular—and it would have been hard to imagine Austria-Hungary credibly giving those powers back. In other words, peace on Austrian terms would’ve shifted power substantially against Serbia, leading to what its leaders believed would be a further deterioration in its position against its enemies; war, on the other hand, might not have offered great prospects, but the worst outcome wasn’t all that different than what peace would’ve offered with near certainty: the end of rising Serbian power in the Balkans. So why fight an “unwinnable” war? Our second answer is that I might fight today because, whatever my prospects, the costs of future weakness are greater than the costs of war in the present.

Of course, it’s interesting that Serbia’s shifting power fear came as the result of the Dual Monarchy’s; if Austria hadn’t wanted to crush Serbia and dole her territories out to other states in the region, it might never have put such terms in front of Serbia in the first place. But we can still see this playing out when the shift in power doesn’t come about as the result of an opponent’s harsh demands, but armament programs: plenty of Germany’s leaders didn’t think their chances against Russia were great, but, by the same logic, in 1914 those chances were as good as they’d ever be—making an ostensibly “unwinnable” war against the combined industrial power of the Entente, however much a “leap into the dark” it was, an acceptable risk in the face of (what was believed to be) certain decline.