The Russo-Japanese War Pt1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6)

After exploring the information problems at the root of the First Sino-Japanese War on Tuesday, today’s lecture lets us see the working out of a different story—one based on shifting military potential, or bargaining leverage—even as the war breaks out over (essentially) the same stakes: dominance in Korea and Manchuria, which we might view as the twin keys to dominating the East Asian mainland. By 1904, with Imperial China’s star on the wane and Imperial Japan’s on the rise, another great power enters the regional picture in the form of a Russian Empire aiming to deepen control over its easternmost holdings. At this point, sure, it owns Siberia, and while it’s not clear that it really controls it just yet, the expansion of the Russian rail network eastward to the port of Vladivostok (literally, “Ruler of the East”—which is about as aspirationally bold as you’re gonna get) signals that Japan, the region’s new great power, is about to face some competition.

Of course, it wasn’t inevitable that rising Russian military strength—and it’s hard to read a new railway connecting the (populated) European and the (vast, empty, valuable) Asian ends of the Russian realm as anything but—should’ve led to war with Japan. Plenty of countries grow militarily stronger, better able to concentrate and apply military force, without provoking other countries to attack them. Yet because of the significant increase in military potential that would be signaled by the completion of a solid railway network, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 is one of those cases where things got violent. Japan launched a surprise attack on the Russian Far Eastern Fleet (basically ending it as a combat-capable force) and ultimately knocked the stunned Russian forces back across Manchuria, and it appears to have done so not literally because of the Trans-Siberian Railway but because of what it represented: the imminent ability of Russia to move large numbers of troops into northeast Asia and challenge Japan’s hard-won (and thanks to the Triple Intervention of 1895, only partial) ascendancy in the region. So, the Russo-Japanese War looks a lot like a war driven by commitment problems at its outbreak, but that doesn’t mean that information problems can’t play a role during the war, as I discussed the last time I blogged about this lecture:

Near the end of Connaughton’s account of the war, we see some contemporary puzzlement about why, despite destroying the Tsar’s fleet and driving the Russians from Manchuria, the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth gave Japan no indemnity (just some interests on the Liaodong peninsula) and dictated a mutual withdrawal from Manchuria. This quote from the New York Times is telling (quoted on p. 344):

The judgment of all observers here…is that the [Russian] victory is as astonishing a thing as ever was seen in diplomatic history. A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and the other overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victory.

But, really, is it all that puzzling? Just a few pages before, we learn some crucial facts about the military situation at war’s end: Japan totters near bankruptcy, while Russia, despite her dim record on the battlefield, has access to cheaper credit and the ability to continue to pour troops into the region. Both sides, moreover, seemed to know this. Japan couldn’t hold out too much longer in Manchuria itself, and Russian reinforcements likely could’ve taken advantage of the deteriorating Japanese position if the war were to continue (though, to be fair, the Revolution of 1905 was brewing at the time).

Still, it seems that by this time, Japan and Russia has similar expectations over what the rest of the war would look like, which according to informational accounts of war termination (see, inter aliathisthis, and this), can facilitate peaceful settlement, as states will strike a bargain that looks like the ultimate outcome (roughly) but saves the costs of getting all the way there. Granted, this doesn’t mean they’ll strike a bargain that reflects the current military situation—and the Treaty of Portsmouth was manifestly not that—but that reflects their shared assessment of what fighting to the finish would look like.

In the final accounting, did Russia pull off a diplomatic coup that produced a settlement at variance with what “should” have happened, given the course of the war? It depends on your perspective, I suppose, but if the “course of the war” is the story of the information transmitted to each side about (a) Russia’s ability to reinforce and (b) Japan’s ability to fund the war, then the answer would have to be a pretty emphatic “no.” It’s a subtle, but oft-missed point: accounts of war termination can explain why the final settlement might look nothing like the final battlefield dispositions yet still prove stable: a war fought to the finish might look quite a bit different than where the belligerents happen to be when they sue for peace.

Even when information problems aren’t enough to get potential belligerents all the way to war, the latter can still play a role in determining precisely when and how wars driven by commitment problems come to an end (on combining bargaining problems, see this). Still, there’s another puzzle here: why would the Tsar order the construction of a railway that he had to suspect would lead Japan to think about a preventive war to maintain its position in Manchuria and Korea? William Spaniel argues that it might have to do with the very information problem that characterized the fighting—Russia might’ve been uncertain over just how willing Japan would be to accommodate Russia’s growing military potential in the region—prompting it to risk the construction of a railway that might (but might not, if Japan is hesitant to fight) result in a preventive war. This problem, the fact that some instances of shifting military power are choices (and thus need not be chosen) will emerge over and over again throughout the class, so it’s worth thinking about just how countries can choose to embark on armament or development programs that provoke the very wars they hope to deter as a result of growing strong…

The First Sino-Japanese War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5)

Today’s topic is the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, which marks the beginning of Part II of the course: The Rise (and Fall) of Japan (see the syllabus here). Before we get around to how we can use last week’s explanations for war to account for this conflict’s outbreak and termination, though, it’s worth linking the underlying issues to the war to our characterization of the international system in the second lecture. If you’ll recall, we noted that in a system of territorial states (or “states” in the case of surviving empires) under a decentralized, nominally anarchic institutional environment, we can expect two broad sources of conflict to emerge over the terms of that global settlement: (a) the placement of borders and (b) who controls the lands enclosed. The latter can include a few types of war, from civil conflicts to wars of conquest and deposition, and in each case the result can range from the simple revision of borders to the replacement of governments to changes in the global hierarchies of power, wealth, and prestige. As luck would have it, today’s conflict ends up with consequences for all three; Japan gains colonies, which represent a middle ground between (or maybe a hybrid of?) changing borders and replacing governments, and it completes the displacement of Imperial China from its place atop the regional power hierarchy, which had been eroding at least since the mid-17th century.

As for the causes of the war—the bargaining problem that caused an uneasy peace to break down in 1894 and whose resolution led to a new settlement in 1895—I’ll quote the relevant blog post from the last time I taught this course:

Today [in September 2013, ed.] was one of those days where a gamble really pays off. I assigned a chapter of S.C.M. Paine’s The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, hoping that it would give the class some clues as to why the two main belligerents couldn’t reach a deal over the governance of Korea and avert what turned out to be a pretty significant war. As it happened, we were treated to a textbook story about mutual optimism leading to inconsistent expectations about the likely outcome of the war, rooted in what were essentially different theories of how wars are won: the Qing [Imperial China] expected numbers to carry the day, while Japan was willing to bet on its qualitatively superior Westernized forces.

As it happened, war quickly laid bare whose forces were superior, as Japan decimated the Chinese navy and was making quick work of its military forces on the Liaodong Peninsula when China ultimately sued for peace. So it’s a great story for our understanding of war—especially war termination—and asymmetric information, but what I found most fascinating was the account of the debate within Japan about just how far to press the advantage once they had the Qing on the ropes: fearing foreign intervention, especially the Russians and Germans, elements of the Japanese elite wanted to limit their aims in order to guarantee they could keep what they got. So they moderated their aims a bit, and while they still took off a little to much, being forced by the Russians, Germans, and French (the Triple Intervention) to cede the Liaodong Peninsula back to China (who subsequently leased it to the Russians), it was a pretty clear example of the dynamic Suzanne Werner analyzed here: where states that don’t intervene in a war can still have a profound affect on its aims and its course.

So we built on the basic informational account of war by tracing (a) how battlefield outcomes affect war aims and (b) how the shadow of outside intervention can affect war outcomes, even when that intervention may not materialize.

That’s a fairly clean(-ish) information story, even with the pretty substantial interference of the other great powers in shaping the final settlement, but it’s also illustrative of another key point to which we’ll return all semester: states generally fight wars not for the sake of fighting, but for the sake of shaping the order that will follow fighting, forcing their opponents to accede to a new set of arrangements—a new network of bargains—that peaceful diplomacy failed to achieve. In the First Sino-Japanese War, Japan wrested from China not only imperial possessions but also a place of prominence in other states’ estimates of their relative power and prestige, both of which would go on to shape in profound ways Japan’s experience of being a great power in the first half of the 20th century.

Explaining War, Part 2 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 4)

Two days ago, we developed our first answer to the inefficiency puzzle of war. If war is the costliest way to resolve disputes, while negotiations (which themselves typically follow war) are cheaper (if you can use them first to get to the same outcome), why fight? Our first answer involved disagreements about the likely outcome of the war and communication difficulties that stood in the way of creating agreement (the information problems explanation), but today we focus on a second broad answer to the puzzle: war as a commitment problem (for academic treatments, see this and this.)

(Before we get going on that, though, a quick note is in order: the inefficiency puzzle is a difficult one to grasp. When we say that war is inefficient, we don’t mean that the costs always outweigh the benefits; we only mean that the costs (a) exist and are (b) less than the costs of negotiations that can produce the same result as fighting. In fact, if both sides are fighting over something they didn’t have beforehand, they can both be better off than they were at peace, yet the war would still be inefficient—the belligerents still destroyed stuff to divide this new thing up rather than divide it up without destroying that stuff. I digress, but, students, take note: this is a difficult and subtle point, so don’t assume you’ve internalized it just yet. Keep thinking about it.)

Now, on to the topic of the day. How else might we explain why war occurs if not by information problems? Our second main answer to the problem derives from two facts: (a) nothing stops states from starting or threatening a war if it’s in their interest and (b) their ability and willingness to start or threaten war can change over time. More after the fold. Continue reading

Explaining War, Part 1 (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 3)

Last week, we discussed the salient features of the international system, which allowed us to say something about the issues over which states disagree and (sometimes) fight: the placement of borders and who governs the territories within those borders. This week, we’re moving down one level, from the system as a whole to the disagreements that emerge between those states that populate the system. What we want to know now is why some of these disagreements are resolved violently while the majority are resolved peacefully. (This is “War and Peace in East Asia,” after all.) War is deadly, destructive, and wasteful, yet most of the time it produces something that states can have without having to fight first: a negotiated settlement. Why fight, only to produce a treaty that one could’ve written down beforehand and that doesn’t waste blood and treasure?

Answer number 1 below the fold… Continue reading

What is the international system? (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 2)

So, I’m back to blogging my undergrad class this semester. (Let’s hope I can keep it going this time.) Today is the second session of “War and Peace in East Asia,” which is basically a semester long exercise of using the history of a specific region to sneak in discussions of the modern theory of war and international politics. Tuesday, I compared colloquial understandings of war and its causes to pre-germ theory understandings of disease—basically superstitious and callously self-serving—and promised to overturn how the class thinks about war with a barrage of theories rooted in war as a political phenomenon. Today is a bit more table setting, but we get down to our first bit of substantive international relations theory.

Today’s goal is to lay some groundwork for the course by placing the region in the context of the broader international system. That means that we have to start big—identifying the relevant actors, ordering principles, and modes of change to the big, nasty network of bargains that defines international politics. That’s important, I think, not just because this is an IR class, but because it can be too tempting to dive into the region in isolation, which creates a kind of geo-historical small-sample problem: if we isolate the set of countries whose interactions we’re studying from the rest of the system, then we run the risk of over-attributing the effects of the local, or the idiosyncratic, at the expense of the global, or the structural. (King, Keohane, and Verba (1994) have something on this, talking about small-sample attenuations of regression lines, right?) As we’ll see later in the semester, viewing the current incarnation of the Sino-Japanese rivalry or Cross-Strait relations without the context of the broader world of great power politics would lead to some profoundly biased inferences about what makes these rivalries look the way they do.

So, before we get to the regional, we’ve got to start with the global—and in today’s reading (Chapter 1 of this) Paine even argues that the existence of this global system came into existence in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (which we’ll talk about a few lectures hence). That might be a bit late, given the fact that British intervention in the Taiping Civil War was touched off by opening of American Civil War (how cool is that? – the interconnection, of course, not the fact that some Americans tried to fight a war for the right to own other people), but it’s undeniable that two new non-European great powers emerged on the world stage, and in the Pacific, in the last years of the 19th Century. By 1894, the international politics of East Asia aren’t just regional; they’re global. What, then, is this international system of which all the protagonists in our semester-long story—Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, American—are a part?

For the purposes of the course, I decided to focus on three things: the political units making up the system, its ordering principles, and the agents of change in units and ordering principles. For the most part, we’re talking about territorial states with at least nominal sovereignty, but there’s obviously a lot of variation in what those states look like, from ideal-typical national states to age-old empires masquerading as states to this day. But, generally, territorial states are the dominant actors in the stories we’ll be telling. Next, there are two, not always consistent, ordering principles: formal, legal anarchy but informal, de facto hierarchy. All states have a similar legal existence and set of rights and privileges, but hierarchies of wealth, power, and influence lead to a lot of variation in the extent states can (and choose to) act on their own. Finally, what drives change in either the units or the principles by which they’re ordered? The answer is simple: war…or its threat when states manage to accept the likely outcome of a war without having to fight it. Mao wasn’t wrong when he said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and nowhere is this more often acknowledged than in international relations: rights, privileges, even the location of borders and the autonomy of ruling elites are the results of bargains that generally fall along lines of the likely outcome of wars that could be fought to determine them. War destroys and creates states, hierarchies, borders, elites—it periodically recreates the international system along new lines, and we’ll be tracing these effects in East Asia throughout the semester.

A system organized in this way—territorial states in a decentralized legal environment—is also going to be prone to specific types of disagreements and conflicts. States will tend to dispute the placement of borders and who governs particular territories, and the latter—since controlling the state is inherently valuable—will also provoke wars within the states themselves. States will also fight in order to reorder their places in the hierarchy, to gain control over the behavior of other states or to prevent or reverse the rise of some others to great power status. So this isn’t just an exercise in definition and semantics, because a decentralized territorial order based on legally sovereign states will be prone to certain types of disagreements and certain types of wars as a consequence. As we’ll note next week, however, wars aren’t the inevitable consequence of demands for change to the terms of the global settlement: more often than not, states find diplomatic solutions to their problems without having to fight a war first…and figuring out why war sometimes precedes diplomacy and why states sometimes get straight to the diplomacy will be one of the dominant puzzles that we address in this course.

Further, changes in the number and identity of great powers—those states that sit collectively at the top of the power hierarchy, basically acknowledge each other as such, and muck around in the affairs of other states the most often—tends to be fairly dangerous, and the historical period we’ll cover (from 1894 to the present) is rife with such changes: we’ll begin with a region dominated by Imperial China, then by a Japan that vaults into the rank of great powers in the historical blink of an eye, then one in which numerous great powers—including a post-Civil War China, Soviet Russia, and the United States—interact, all in the shadow of a united China recovering its wealth and military power in more recent decades. Viewed in that light, any course about war and peace in East Asia has to begin with an appreciation of the broader system in which it exists and whose ebbs and flows buffet the powerful and weak alike in East Asia.

The Return of World War I in Real Time (WWI in Real Time II, Lecture 1)

I started the 1915 version of World War I in Real Time today (syllabus here), and apart from getting to talk even longer during the “how did we get here” first part of the lecture, it was like riding a bicycle—if that bicycle pedaled itself, dispensed beer, played Pearl Jam, and charged a cellphone. I can’t wait to get back into this class.

Not much to note about this first lecture, apart from having a full extra year’s worth of table setting to draw the class in on the first day: Japan, Turkey, and Italy joining the war; Japan’s note to China; Gallipoli and the Arab Revolt; the British blockade; the Lusitania, the Arabic, unrestricted German submarine warfare, and the stirrings of American sentiment for war. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something in the retelling, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “real time” hook works as well this time, given that I’m doing even more violence to the real time conceit than I did in 2014.

It’s allowed some changes that I’m happy with, though: some less than satisfying lectures jettisoned, new ones brought in on new topics (especially on the empires in the war and fighting outside Europe), a more clearly defined set of and role for writing assignments, etc. More in this space to come, though until we get into new lectures, it’ll mostly be inside-baseball stuff on the teaching side.

Looking back on WWI in Real Time

After a few weeks of reflection following a semester of teaching World War I in Real Time—which, by the way, was insanely fun—I figured that a few broader observations about the course, as opposed to the war itself, were in order. It was, after all, a unique experience for me as a teacher.

  1. The topic itself [just part of one war? in real time? what was I thinking?] might’ve seemed narrow, but the sheer breadth of theories of politics we covered was actually pretty remarkable; the war was overflowing with puzzles to be solved. Collective action, bargaining and war (several variants thereof), coordination problems, coalition- and alliance-building, international law, state-society bargaining, war expansion and duration…the list went on. And I think that the history of a single event provided a sufficiently common substantive vocabulary in the room that teaching a wider range of theories was *easier* than it would’ve otherwise been.

  2. At the same time, it’s always a bit staggering that we can use so few strategic problems to explain or gain insight into so many questions about politics.

  3. Also, the right draw of students can do a lot for the quality of the course.

  4. Blogging a course wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected, but it’s surely a grind. Still, whether I wrote the posts right before a lecture or right after, I found that I almost always got something out of it. Teaching two grad courses this spring, I’m not sure just how much of the same style of blogging I’ll be doing, but I do hope that I can keep up the habit.

  5. I firmed up some ideas about what it looks like when I’m at my best in the classroom, largely because (a) the blogging forced me to put some structure to lectures I otherwise might not have and (b) I was seeking out a new question to ask, a new puzzle to solve, in class nearly every week. It even carried over to the other course I was teaching at the same time.

Of course, there’s still one question left to ask: would I teach this course again? Absolutely. In fact, it’s in the queue for Fall 2015. Sure, it’ll look a bit different, and maybe only the last third will be straight-up fall 1915 events “in real time,” *but* the selection of material from 1914 that opens the course will be pretty lean and pretty damned mean. (Of course, holding on to the best of that set of lectures will also cut down on new stuff to prep—and that’s tough to complain about.)

Until then, we’ll see just how reliable I can be about blogging the teaching of a grad course on Research in International Relations…

Why did the Great War last so long? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 24)

When it comes to international politics, World War I pretty much has it all. That’s a blessing in some ways—there’s lots to be puzzled by, to explain, and to learn from—but in others, it’s not so great: any one event looks overdetermined when you look closely enough, and it’s inferentially impossible to prize some explanations over others. That said, we spent some time today talking about why the war lasted as long as it did. We finish the “real time” part of the course in December 1914/2014, but there were/are 46 more months of war to go. Why, after Germany’s defeat at the Marne, the onset of trench warfare on the Western Front, and the stalemating of the East, did the war continue until 1918? After all, while Germany suspected it was beaten in December 1914, it pretty much knew that it was in December 1917…and yet the war dragged on.

There’s a lot to draw on here, and if you want some accessible treatments of war termination in general check out this and this (both of which figure prominently in today’s story). To summarize the discussion, though, we emphasized that wars often end when fighting solves the problem that stood in the way of a settlement in the first place. When wars are driven by commitment problems, for example, they tend to end when either (a) commitments are made credible by removing incentives or abilities to renege or (b) the source of incentives to renegotiate (like rising power) are eliminated. This, of course, tends to push states towards particularly extreme war aims, from dismembering states to “ending” them as great powers to replacing their governments. On the other hand, when wars begin with states disagreeing about how a total war would play out, they end once fighting produces sufficient agreement that both sides can agree to save the costs of further fighting. (This happens a lot; there’s a damned good reason the vast majority of wars end short of what we talk about colloquially as military “victory.”)

Our first step was to see if these stories helped us explain why the war lasted so long, and they got us pretty far. Germany, for its part, was fighting a preventive war against Russia and its French ally, the solution for which was ending their run as great powers. The British, likewise, were fighting to make Germany’s commitment not to dominate the Continent credible. Both, of course, drive war aims towards totality, because solving them requires the ability to dictate some pretty harsh terms—terms you can only successfully dictate when your opponent is well and truly prostrate. Defeating an army in the field, especially when prevailing technology and doctrine favor the defense, simply takes a long time, and that helps explain why the war was so long. Total-ish aims didn’t come out of nowhere (though plenty of scholarship acts like they do), and here they emerged from commitment problems. Nice. Okay. One factor in favor of a long war.

But what about information problems? Some work argues that information problems can’t be a compelling account of long wars (here, here), but—especially in the case of WWI—I’m not sure that’s so hard and fast. Consider what our belligerents were uncertain about: the ability to hold out, to wage an attritional conflict by sustaining a war effort that drew over and over from a limited pool of labor and manpower, to bring (and keep) the whole of the population into the war effort, to outlast the other on the way to a “peace of exhaustion.” As opposed to valuations of the prize, per-battle chances of winning, or per-battle costs of fighting, it seems that the only way to prove how long one can hold out is to…well, hold out. In that sense, uncertainty over which side could sustain mobilization likely kept the war long as well—fighting before full mobilization wouldn’t be revelatory (and those involved knew this), but after that (1916, roughly), verbal claims of one’s ability to outlast the other simply couldn’t be credible. Fighting on was the only way to demonstrate that one could fight on, and that likely lengthened the war as well.

However, one can argue that this only gets us so far. By late 1917, with American troops arriving en masse to negate whatever advantages Germany won from the Russian separate peace, the game was clearly up; even gambling to try to hold on to parts of Belgium was likely a dead letter. Why did Germany still fight on? One possible answer is that the German elite was “gambling for resurrection“; expecting a pretty grim personal fate if they settled short of victory, they opted to throw everything into a pair of desperate gambles (unrestricted submarine warfare, then Operation Michael) that bet everything on slim chances of victory. After all, if peace would be disastrous, while the worst possible outcome of fighting on was also a disaster—why not fight and hope for a slim chance of survival?

It’s possible, then, that the commitment problems that drove belligerents to seek military victory, as well as the informational obstacles to judging the relative chances of success in a war of attrition, could explain why the war was a long one. However, why it ended in 1918—and in the way that it did, with a precipitous bottom-up collapse of the will to resist on the front lines—might require an appreciation of the fates awaiting the German leadership (at this point, dominated by the Army) if they did what in 1917 an outside observer might expect of them: settling on Allied terms.

What made the Western Front the “decisive” one? (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 22)

We spent Tuesday (a lecture about which I forgot to blog) talking about the expansion of the war, particularly the decisions made by neutrals like Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and (later) the United States to join the war. Today, though, by zeroing in on other neutrals like Romania and Bulgaria, we might have stumbled across an interesting explanation for why the Western Front was the decisive one of the war—not because it was fated to be so, but because of some key strategic problems posed by the two-front nature of Germany’s war. Here’s how.

Suppose, first, that Germany has two goals (among many, of course): fighting an attritional materialschlacht in the West, where decision—though delayed—is possible against the Western Allies, while ensuring that Eastern neutrals like Bulgaria and Romania don’t jump over into the allied camp. Second, suppose further that Germany expects that many neutrals’ decisions will be driven by which side is believed likely to win on the Eastern Front (Hastings has a discussion of this in Chapter 16), beliefs that Germany is in a position to shape as the Dual Monarchy’s armies stagger from disaster to disaster in Galicia and Serbia. To pursue its goals, Germany has an allocation decision to make: how many of a limited number of troops should it send to each front?

Faced with this problem, Germany weakened its forces in the west, ensuring that breakthroughs, if possible, couldn’t be turned into broader successes, sending troops to shore up Austro-Hungarian forces fighting the Russians. Germany is often criticized for this diversion of attention from the “decisive” Western Front, but I’m not sure that’s the right way to think about this. Consider, for example, what would happen if Germany threw its whole effort into the West; a possible Hapsburg collapse, a cascade of neutrals bandwagoning with the Allies, and disaster in the East—which, of course, would make the East the decisive front. On the other hand, if Germany focuses too much on the East, the Western Front can’t sustain attrition, and the Western Allies might win. Faced with the prospect of full-on defeat on one front or the other, Germany accepted an attritional stalemate on both. Stopping a loss in the East, it prevented (in the short term) critical neutrals from taking undesirable actions, but doing so required stalemating the West at the same time. However, had it taken the frequently-given ex post advice of concentrating in the West, the Eastern Front might well have been decisive. In short, the Western Front was decisive in equilibrium, but it wasn’t fated to be so.

Interesting right? Germany and the Allies all bet on attrition in the West, horrific as it was, because (a) the Allies had no better options, and (b) nor did the Central powers, who chose to make the stalemated West the critical front rather than an Eastern Front that might have turned out worse under another strategy. This also means that, in a way, Bulgaria and Romania, at least early on, played a role in which front would be decisive in the Great War before either fired a shot. Is it any wonder that no one really likes fighting two-front wars?

Comparing the Eastern and Western Fronts (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 20)

After a break to take the second exam last Thursday (a break in which I forgot to do a “let’s look back” filler piece), we spend some time today on the Eastern Front, which—if I’m being honest—I’ve short-shrifted a bit in the course thus far. That’s too bad, because I think we can use the Eastern Front to learn a lot about the reasons behind the consuming indecisiveness of the war’s early years…on both fronts.

Last week, we showed why military technology and the strategic environment produced an attritional equilibrium on the Western Front, where each side sought to return to mobile warfare but was unable to do so without opening up its own lines to the breach that the opponent’s (similar) strategy denied it. The end result, of course, was a long period in which a military decision was impossible. Two factors often put up to explain the lack of decision on the battlefield are (a) the compactness of the Western Front, where ratios of soldiers per mile were always higher than the East, and (b) a lack of “imagination” amongst each side’s commanders—that is, the lack of an appropriate strategy. However, in class today we show that neither of these is a terribly strong explanation for the lack of decision, because the Eastern Front was, while much longer and less densely-manned and home to a wider variety of tactical combinations, almost equally indecisive.

The Eastern Front was never as deeply entrenched or as static as the Western, meaning that the fighting was certainly more mobile; commanders had the room in which to maneuver their troops, and whether or not we call it incompetence, we saw a variety of attempts to break the stalemate that the belligerents on the Western front didn’t have available. Nonetheless, with cities changing hands back and forth in both East Prussia and Galicia, as well as Russian Poland, the reality of modern firepower and the limits of logistics in newly-captured territories ensured that, as in the West, no local successes could be converted into a genuine, sustained breakthrough—that is, into a more general success.

Thus, even though it wasn’t as static as the Western Front, the war in the East was still one of reserves, indecision, and grignotage—of attrition, albeit with a different face. Only when reserves and populations were used up, pulled out of the line by collapse or by exhaustion (or, you know, the Bolshevik Revolution), did the character of the war in the East change. Years later, with the wearing-down of German reserves in the face of Allied weight of numbers, similar factors would presage the end of the war in the West…the length of the front or “imaginations” of the generals notwithstanding.*

* For one of the best accounts of the similarities on Eastern and Western Fronts, check  out William Philpott’s War of Attrition. It’s excellent.