by Austin Bay
September 1, 2009
Unleashed in the early hours of Sept. 1, 1939, Germany's "lightning
war" -- the blitzkrieg -- quickly pierced Poland's border forces and
sliced through the Danzig Corridor. As the German Luftwaffe hammered Poland's
air force, panzer divisions smashed Poland's army, leaving its units scattered
Poland continued to resist. Britain and France joined the war on Sept. 3. Sept.
17, however, sealed Poland's fate, as Russian forces invaded eastern Poland --
the "stab in the back" by Joseph Stalin. Poland collapsed.
sensation, however, that Poland had succumbed to a "new kind of war"
shocked a world still mired in World War I, where bunkers, trenches and
firepower stymied offensive operations. From 1919 to 1939, France and Britain
had prepared for a repeat of "the last war," with France's Maginot
Line the literally concrete expression of that preparation. The Maginot Line
was a bunker complex perfected, complete with underground train lines and turreted
artillery covering broad minefields.
Nazis touted the blitzkrieg's success as an example of Teutonic superiority.
They also delighted in the terror blitzkrieg sowed.
The Stuka divebomber had a siren that emitted a piercing
scream as the plane plunged toward the earth -- a psychological weapon intended
to frighten troops beyond the blast of the bomb.
"storm troop" infiltration tactics used in 1918 are a blitzkrieg
predecessor. However, improved communications was the key to "new
war." Radios linked the tank on the ground with the aircraft and with
commanders. During the interwar years, officers in several nations (including
Britain, France and Italy) understood the power of this network.
Germany, however, acted on the ideas.
awed press and stunned populations, the blitzkrieg that devastated Poland
appeared to be a "magic bullet." When Germany attacked France in May
1940 and flanked the Maginot Line by invading the Low Countries, the dark magic
worked again. In 1941, the magic seemed to work in Russia, as panzer spearheads
the magic began to fade.
adapted. The combined arms terror of blitzkrieg couldn't bridge the English
Channel. The British withstood the "London blitz" (of aircraft only).
Russia adapted, employing General Winter and forcing the Germans to besiege big
cities. The United States -- surprised by Japan -- adapted. The U.S. and Russia
developed mobile forces supported by overwhelming firepower. In 1945, Germany
became a Poland crushed between superior armored and air forces. Germany circa
September 1939 never anticipated that outcome.
technological or organizational edge in warfare (a "magic bullet" or
perfect weapon) is always sought, but the advantage is never permanent. From
1945 to 1950, the U.S. thought it had the ultimate weapon, the A-bomb, but then
Russia got one.
fraternal twin of the magic bullet quest is "the last war"
mentality, for both can distort a government's (or
terrorist cell leader's) estimate of an emerging challenge. Wounds physical and
social from World War I traumatized the French public, so France built the
Maginot Line, the ultimate weapon for that "Great War."
a segment of the U.S. population that sees every U.S.
war as "Vietnam," which is ludicrous but has
emotional traction and hence political effects. Many Russians still view the
West through a Cold War lens, and at times Vladimir Putin's sly government encourages
on Terror has given the U.S. military and intelligence services another lesson
in anticipation and adaptation. America did not anticipate 9-11. That September
day, al-Qaida attempted a "psychological blitzkrieg" when it used
jumbo jets as ICBMs then followed up with a global propaganda campaign designed
to magnify the terror (global media providing the siren on the Stuka).
campaign asserted unshakeable international Muslim support for al-Qaida and
tried to exploit American "last war" fears of Vietnam and Somalia.
America, however, shook off the shock and adapted. The Predators circling
al-Qaida's mountain hideouts target terrorists daily -- Osama bin Laden never
anticipated fighting missile-armed robots. Predators still have magic, but no
technological advantage ensures victory.
Germany's blitzkrieg was trumped after a long, hard slog that required
blood, sweat, toil and tears. Al-Qaida's psychological blitz failed -- we are
in another hard slog.
The wars the Nazis and al-Qaida launched both
changed in ways their leaders never anticipated. The Nazis underestimated
British, Russian and Yugoslav adaptation and perseverance. Al-Qaida completely
misunderstood American capabilities and stamina, but also grossly misjudged its
own political appeal. Moreover, the psychological edge of their September
surprises eventually eroded.