Lee on Literature: Storm of Steel

The current US presidential election cycle lacks thoughtful discussion of how to significantly reduce a gargantuan looming budget deficit. Budgetary imbalance, if not seriously addressed, will have crippling implications upon inflation, employment and daily life within the next four years.---

Intelligent solutions to deficit reduction require both increasing revenues and decreasing costs. A stunningly obvious place to start, for Republicans and Democrats alike, is adjusting military spending away from an obsolete model. Recognizing military transformations and their importance was a powerful lesson presented by Ernst Junger in his 1920 World War I memoir, Storm of Steel, a lesson that contemporary American leaders should carefully consider.

Ernst Junger was a German soldier who kept detailed dairies of his military service in northern France during WWI. Storm of Steel, derived from these diaries, is divided into chapters surrounding military campaigns in Les Eparges, Douchy, Somme, Cambrai, Champagne and Flanders. Tolerating, digging, working and surviving in the trenches (often without sleep) required a different type of heroism. Junger simply reports the hardships: constant threats of shrapnel, shells and snipers; utter disorientation of nocturnal skirmishes or reconnaissance; the life gamble of any organized offensive—in short, the insanity of trench warfare. Upon capture of a French trench, Junger described "dugouts like looted junk shops" with provisions, equipment, maps, newspapers and corpses strewn everywhere, while in the battered boughs nearby, birds sat peaceably and chirped away in the drifting smoke. Military campaigns dragged on with relatively small amounts of territory won or lost until new technology entered WWI.

In 1917, the US entered WWI and brought mass production of agile tanks and automatic weapons, along with more thunderous artillery and manpower, all of which simply overran the German soldiers hunkered in trenches. Increasingly, survival on the ground became a matter of blind luck, especially for Junger, who should have been killed more than 10 times. A doctor who successfully removed a bullet from Junger's leg noted, "Books and bullets have their own destinies."

The end of World War I (1917-1918) marked the end “traditional warfare” where a primary force of foot soldiers—maneuvering and flanking, supplied and supported—slowly overtook sectors of land, a method strikingly akin to techniques of the American Revolution, the Napoleonic campaign, and the Holy Roman Empire. From 1917-1945, “material warfare” took over. Industrial advantage in the form of mass-produced planes, tanks, and ships led the way to victory. With its superior industrial capacity, the United States essentially won both global conflicts during the “material warfare” era.

Yet after these victories, it proves very hard for America's "Greatest Generation" to shake its hubris regarding "material warfare." As a result, the post-WWII generation's attitude toward military spending remains entrenched in that model, even though "material warfare" is obsolete and wildly expensive. Americans continue to embrace this concept: greater military spending = greater safety, a mindset that Osama Bin Laden successfully exploited to undermine US economic stability. In reality, overspending on the military makes a country weaker (see: collapse of the Soviet Union).

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Reagan's strategically ballooned defense budget was $468.7 billion (in 2005 dollars). This year, the US defense budget (in 2005 dollars) is $582.5 billion. In real dollars, the 2012 Department of Defense budget is $707.5 billion, an amount equal to the next 15 countries' defense budgets combined and approximately 3-6 times the spending of China (No. 2 world military power). Yearly, this trend repeats itself and grows.

Nuclear bomb technology made "material warfare" obsolete, yet the US continues to embrace this model with its spending habits, just as Junger's Germany clung to "traditional warfare" in Storm of Steel. Since the atomic bomb, "material warfare"-style conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq [twice] and Afghanistan) have all been stalemates, no matter the quantity of men and machines allocated. Huge outlays in human and material capital have been spent on relatively ineffective warfare, whereas nearly every military success today comes from Special Forces operations, high-tech intelligence gathering and drones—smaller-scale "technological warfare."

At the end of Storm of Steel, Junger was demoralized by the obsolete German Army. The American public needs to consider Junger's experience or they will face a similar feeling as they face a wall of debt.

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the rapid transformation of 20th-century India.

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