War in Ukraine: U.S. Analysts Sink to New Depths

The legacy media have been grotesquely biased in their coverage of the conflict in Ukraine from well before the shooting war started in February 2022. They have consistently ignored or else misrepresented its causes, including Western mendacity on the ill-fated Minsk I and II accords, eight years of Ukraine’s shelling of civilians in the Donbas, and cavalier dismissal of Moscow’s proposals for the country to become a neutral buffer between Russia and NATO members in Central Europe. 

It is unfortunate that, when discussing Ukraine, once-reputable journals and senior analysts from the supposedly elite research institutions have stooped to the level of propagandistic hacks. A particularly egregious example of poorly informed wishful thinking dressed as analysis was published in the July 18 online issue of Foreign Policy under the title “Stop Comparing Ukraine to World War I; There is a much better historical analogy–and it counsels patience.”

The article’s authors—Raphael S. Cohen, the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at the Rand Corporation’s Project Air Force, and Gian Gentile, the deputy director of the Rand Corporation’s Army Research Division—see that “much better historical analogy” in  the Allied breakthrough from Normandy in the summer of 1944.

Their key argument goes as follows: Many commentators have likened the current Russia-Ukraine war to the Western Front of World War I and latching on to this historical analogy, conclude that the current Ukrainian counteroffensive is doomed to failure and that the war is inching toward an inevitable stalemate. A better historical precedent to understand the current fighting in Ukraine, they claim, can be found in the U.S. Army’s experience in the summer of 1944, when it was fighting the Germans in Normandy, in France. After the Allies landed there on June 6, they hit a period of tactical stalemate. It took them six weeks of tough fighting with slow, grinding attacks through the Normandy hedgerows to push the German defenders just 19 miles beyond the beachhead toward the French city of Saint-Lô:

Only when the Americans finally managed to break through Nazi lines did the Germans go into full retreat. To date, the Russia-Ukraine war resembles the battles in the Normandy hedgerows far more than it does those in the trenches of World War I… Moreover, while Ukraine’s overall progress may be slow, it is making some progress in the places where it matters… Should the Ukrainians be able to take additional terrain, they may be able to set the conditions for more rapid operations, much as the U.S. Army did in Saint-Lô… In the summer of 1944, the average troop density of German defenders that the U.S. Army faced was around 1,000 troops per mile. Today in Ukraine, at the most heavily defended part of the Russian defensive lines centered on Bakhmut, Russian troop density is about 700 troops per mile… Nearly eight decades ago, the United States faced some of the same challenges that Ukraine faces today. But the U.S. Army persisted, and its slow, daily advances wore down the German defenders.

Should one of my students write an essay in this vein he’d get a well-deserved F. One sentence in particular displays a breathtaking mix of ignorance and propagandistic audacity: “Nearly eight decades ago, the United States faced some of the same challenges that Ukraine faces today.” There are at least six major reasons why this is not true:

  1. In the summer of 1944 Germany was fighting a three-front war—in Russia, Italy, and France—with the bulk of her fighting men—over 80 percent—engaged on the Eastern Front. They could not spare any of those forces for the western theater, especially not after the Soviet operation Bagration (22 June-19 August 1944)—the biggest offensive operation of the entire Second World War—wiped out the Wehrmacht’s entire Army Group Center, destroying 28 of its 34 divisions. Of course, Russia is not in a remotely similar predicament today. In the summer of 1944 Germany was exhausted, while Russia thus far has mobilized only a fraction of its human and material resources.
  2. The United States and its allies made the decisive breakthrough not six weeks but two and a half months after D-Day, following the battle of Falaise Pocket. This was not a period of “tactical stalemate.” During this time an endless stream of ships was bringing from Britain and directly from the U.S. huge troop reinforcements, massive quantities of tanks, trucks, and guns of all calibers, as well as millions of tons of supplies. This enabled the Allies to establish clear superiority in men and everything else before launching an all-out attack. Building up that superiority took time, but it proved worthwhile in the ensuing battle. That period of intense preparation for the breakthrough cannot be compared to the current stalemate in Ukraine, where Kiev’s long heralded counteroffensive has clearly faltered.
  3. The United States and its allies enjoyed complete control of the air over France in the summer of 1944. The Luftwaffe was on its last legs, and in any event, it was focused on the defense of the Reich against Allied strategic bombing raids. Russia, on the other hand, commands the skies above the Ukrainian front lines, and that is unlikely to change even if a few squadrons of F-16s are ultimately delivered to Ukraine.
  4. By the summer of 1944 the United States and its allies were producing enormous quantities of weapons, while Germany’s production was about to collapse due to the combined effects of bombing, acute oil shortage, and the loss of key metals and other raw materials essential to war production. Ukraine produces a tiny fraction of its military needs, and the West lacks either the production capacity or the political will to continue its current level of supplies indefinitely. Russia, on the other hand, is ranked No. 2, right after the U.S. in the 2023 ranking of the world’s nations based on their current available firepower.
  5. Troop density along the front lines does not mean the same thing today as it did in 1944. The same number of entrenched infantrymen have vastly greater firepower and more advanced surveillance technology at their disposal than their peers 79 years ago. Even the treatment of this technical detail betrays the authors’ ignorance or mendacity.
  6. In strategic terms, in the summer of 1944 the U.S. faced vastly different challenges from those Ukraine faces today. Ukraine is fighting a grim war of attrition with increasingly uncertain prospects, whereas the real challenge for America and its allies in 1944 was to get to the heart of Europe before the Red Army. The prospects for Germany were grim after it attacked Russia and declared war on America; it was sealed at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943. Had there been no Normandy landings, the Russians almost certainly would have reached the English Channel by the summer of 1946 at the latest.

Cohen and Gentile end their article by claiming that “the time factor is perhaps the most important reason why it’s misleading to compare Ukraine today to World War I. Back then, after four years of fighting and millions of casualties, Britain and France arguably didn’t have time on their side, even as the Americans finally entered the fray in the last six months of the war.”

This, too, is utter nonsense. After the failure in September 1914 of the Schlieffen plan—the German general staff’s daring yet risky blueprint for a short war—it was the Kaiserreich and its chief ally Austria-Hungary that didn’t have time on its side.

In early 1916 “the hunger disaster spread unstoppably throughout the Habsburg Monarchy.” In Vienna in May 1916 the first food riots occurred. With the onset of the horrid “turnip winter” of 1916-1917 German civilians were also starving, thanks primarily to the British naval blockade which was not lifted until after the Versailles Treaty was signed in June 1919. In both countries the last two years of the war were marked by nightlong queuing forever shrinking rations of basic foods, children and women marked by malnourishment. Tubercular diseases rose rapidly; pneumonia, hunger swelling, influenza, and dysentery claimed hundreds of thousands of victims.

It was exactly because they realized the time was not on their side that the Germans launched their desperate final offensive in March 1918. They knew that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the United States could ship soldiers across the Atlantic and fully deploy its resources. The Kaiserschlacht—Kaiser’s Battle—also known as the Ludendorff Offensive, was defeated by the British and the French three months later, well before Pershing’s doughboys could make much difference to the outcome. They soon counterattacked, launching the Hundred Days Offensive on August 8, 1918, which the Germans themselves aptly called the black day of the German army.

Since Cohen and Gentile wrongly evoke the time factor as “the most important reason why it’s misleading to compare Ukraine today to World War I,” their ill-informed and inaccurate support for that claim indicates that the comparison is in fact eminently sound until proven otherwise.

In the final paragraph Cohen and Gentile warn against false analogies. The warning is apt but, ironically, their article provides a prime example of that genre.

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