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Book Reviews Military History

#WavellReviews “Hall of Mirrors: War and Warfare in the 20th Century” by Jim Storr

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Helion & Company

At first blush, Hall of Mirrors may warrant a sigh and a quick judgment that such a well-trodden topic may have little to offer that is new or insightful.  Existing histories range from historical fiction, particular national perspectives, more popular histories, as well as multiple esoteric topics and abstractions of the study of combat and warfare.  One may be too quick to list Hall of Mirrors as another in this cannon, but it is not the case.  It is an insightful, slightly curious work, well worth the read.

During the 20th Century two prominent types of warfare – armored (mechanized) and air – took hold amidst one of the most violent centuries in history.  Storr’s contention is that despite the initial theories and concepts that prescribed the use of these new technologies on the battlefield, no single theory of their employment emerged, and many proved to be flawed.  Furthermore, while narratives of these ‘novel’ forms of warfare tend to dominate or even blur other aspects of military history, there is much that gets overlooked in the study of warfare in this period.  There are however, some dominant trends that emerge or that should be reinforced.  Hall of Mirrors strives to illuminate some of the subtle oversights of the 20th Century, despite the fact that “history is an imperfect mirror”1

The expansive breadth of material and a-typical historical examples made this a challenging book to review.  Any reader needs to be well versed in 20th Century military history in order to fully appreciate the examples used.  Similarly, they need to be prepared for an occasional drift into a short historical fiction narrative.  There are some unique stylistic characteristics of the book that warrant nonlinear reading, and it is recommended to read the last chapter and the conclusion first.

Sometimes the script resembles a stream of consciousness, rather than a formalized and structured argument with supporting detail and a conclusion.  At times there is a drift into commentary without direct bearing on the subject at hand.  The book has a bare minimum of footnotes which is somewhat of a disappointment in a scholarly text.  It does however include a comprehensive and well-organized bibliography.  But these criticisms should not detract from understanding the observations Professor Storr is making.

This book’s structure generally follows a chronological march of the 20th century.  The first chapter surveys the conflicts which opened the period in South Africa and the Philippines.  The next three chapters of the book concern the First World War.  This portion of the book sets the stage that the employment of massive armies, imbued with the trappings of industrialized military power, demanded a strategy for successful persecution of the war.   Several senior military leaders were seeking a single battle of annihilation, without which the conduct of the war consumed considerable time and resources.  Store contends that it was not until the entry of the American Army that the Allies had to truly consider strategy.

The author’s narrative through these early chapters describes the struggle with adaptation in the face of industrial age warfare.  The intellectual grappling with the need for the structural concept of the operational level and the degree to which each side adapted.  Storr uses these opening chapters to reinforce the fact that the most profound changes in warfare occurred in this period.   He states that a battalion commander in 1914 would not have recognized the tactical situation in 1918.  What was occurring was the emergence, understanding and formalization of operational art.

Next, Storr pivots out of the Great War period with a concise summary of interwar thinking and a review of some of the pertinent theorists in that period: Douhet, Hart, Fuller and Tuchachevsky.  Storr is setting the stage for a more interesting review of the role and impact of innovation and the adaptation of those concepts in this period.  A key point in this is that not all countries and military’s adapted at the same pace.  Similarly, the countries which produced some of the most profound thinkers, such as Dohuet in Italy, did not necessarily innovate themselves.  Storr leaves this discussion with a preview of the start to the Second World War.

The conclusions he draws from late 20th century military engagements are that ground warfare is decisive, and technological superiority rarely plays a dominant role in determining military success.  Despite optimistic predictions, airpower has never completely delivered, and in some cases has in fact slowed the pace of ground operations.  The reader is left with no doubt of Storr’s criticism of air power through the 20th Century.  To Storr, airpower is useful for signaling and limited aims but it is not, in and of itself, decisive.

Storr begins the last third of Hall of Mirrors with the more recent 20th Century history with a historical review and an emphasis on ground warfare.  He provides a comprehensive review on maneuver warfare and the tenants that support it.  His premise is that all maneuver is a response to the rifled bullet (and without being stated, increasing range and lethality of weapons).

Storr does not leave out an analysis of insurgencies, as they have occupied significant portions of the last century’s history and continue to do so.  He leads the discussion with a comprehensive review of terms centered on insurgency in order to clearly define concepts.  He goes on to stress the difficulty of using military force to settle the reasons for the insurgency and offers solutions as to what may work if military forces are used in such campaigns.  In keeping with his theme and after extolling the difficulties of irregular warfare, Storr labels such campaigns as wrought with a high degree of failure for the antagonist and indecisive for all.

Throughout the book, the author makes no secret of his theory on the primacy of land power.   It is a topic he returns to multiple times and is a constant theme that is woven throughout.   Storr dutifully covers air and naval power in his book, yet he is very clear in stating the case for decisive land power. Over and over, Storr makes the claim that bombing is a political tool to feign progress and placate allies.  Storr may have credibility in his theories as contemporary as the world bears witnesses to debates regarding the effectiveness of the employment of drones in the current environment.  A vigorous debate surely to continue.

Hall of Mirrors is certainly comprehensive, but its title, War and Warfare in the 20th Century excludes coverage of most recent conflict periods i.e., the early battles in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the counter ISIS campaign in 2016-2018 as well as the campaigns in West Africa.  It is intellectually disappointing to miss Storr’s analysis of these periods, despite his statement “that experience in Iraq and Afghanistan are not relevant”2.  A chapter confirming Storr’s continuities and thoughts outside of the 20th century, could have served as an appropriate concluding chapter and interesting primer for the current day.  Perhaps readers can look forward to a similar work by the author covering this century.

Storr’s observations and preferences for high intensity land warfare may be absolutely true, but seem adrift in today’s strategic debate.  The current security environment may be seen as an anathema to Storr’s concepts.  Today, the means are dominated by drone strikes, SOF raids and proxy forces; all politically low risk and operationally conservative.

Given the current focus on near-conflict, the threat of high-intensity ground combat may not be relegated to the antiquity as previously thought. Strategists and tacticians alike should heed the multiple lessons and observations in Hall of Mirrors.  It is a comprehensive work that would be suitable for higher level staff level reading lists and is full of useful considerations for operational military planners.

Jeffrey Alston

Jeffrey Alston is a US Army National Guard armor officer with over thirty years’ experience at the company, battalion and brigade level as a manoeuvre commander, and is a graduate of the US Army War College.  He makes the proud claim to be qualified on the M60A3 and M1 series tanks.  He is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Footnotes

  1. Hall of Mirrors p252
  2. Hall of Mirrors p207

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