Cult of the offensive

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Map of the Schlieffen Plan and planned French counter-offensives

The Cult of the offensive refers to a strategic military dilemma, where leaders believe that offensive advantages are so great that a defending force would have no hope of repelling the attack; consequently, all states choose to attack. It is most often used in context of explaining the causes of World War I and the subsequent heavy losses that occurred year after year, on all sides, during the fighting on the Western Front.

The term has also been applied to those considering air power doctrine immediately prior to the opening of World War II, where it was believed "the bomber will always get through" and the only way to end a bombing campaign was to bomb the enemy into submission. It is also often used to explain Israeli strategy during the 1960s and 1970s[by whom?], as demonstrated in the Six Day War in which Israeli forces attacked and routed much larger enemy forces in a lightning attack.

Military theory[edit]

Under the cult of offensive, military leaders believe that the attacker will be victorious (or at least cause more casualties than they receive) regardless of circumstance and so defense as a concept is almost completely discredited. This results in all strategies focusing on attacking, and the only valid defensive strategy being to counter-attack.

International politics[edit]

In international relations, the cult of offensive is related to the security dilemma and offensive realism theories. It stresses that conquest is easy and security difficult to obtain from defensive posture. Liberal institutionalists argue that it is a commitment problem,[1] and that preemptive war which results from the security dilemma is fairly rare.[2]

World War I[edit]

The cult of the offensive was the dominant theory among many military and political leaders before World War I.[3] Those leaders argued in favor of declaring war and launching an offensive, believing they could cripple their opponents, and fearing that if they waited, they in turn would be defeated. The dominance of this line of thought significantly contributed to the escalation of hostilities, and is seen as one of the causes of World War I.

Military theorists of the time generally held that seizing the offensive was of crucial importance, hence belligerents were encouraged to strike first in order to gain the advantage.[4] Most planners wanted to begin mobilization as quickly as possible to avoid being caught on the defensive. This was complicated as mobilizations were expensive, and their schedules were so rigid that they could not be canceled without massive disruption of the country and military disorganization. Thus, the window for diplomacy was shortened by this attitude, and once the mobilizations had begun diplomacy had the added difficulty of having to justify canceling the mobilizations. This phenomenon was also referred to as "war by timetable".[5]

The German Schlieffen Plan is a notable example of the cult of the offensive. Supported by pro-offensive officers such as Alfred von Schlieffen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, it was executed in the first month of the war (with some historians maintaining it was nearly victorious,[6] though others claim the Plan never had any chance of success[7]); however, a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris, the Battle of the Marne (combined with surprisingly speedy Russian offensives), ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. It was not only Germany who followed the cult of the offensive; the French army, among others, was also driven very strongly by this doctrine, where its supporters included Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre and Loyzeaux de Grandmaison. Officers of that period were indoctrinated that "The French Army, returning unto its traditions, no longer knows any law other than the offensive". This is thought[by whom?] to be the military reason behind the French Conscription Law in July 1913, following the passing of a similar bill in Germany six months earlier: the offensive "guerre à outrance" to swiftly seize German Alsace-Lorraine was felt by military planners to require an additional 200,000 conscripts with respect to the defensive war for which the army was prepared[citation needed].

In the hindsight, World War I ultimately favored defensive strategies; the cult of the offensive led to heavy losses during the fighting on the Western Front. The forces that expected attack prepared elaborate defense positions (trenches with artillery, rifles and machine guns), which were commonly able to weather attacking artillery and inflict heavy losses on attacking infantry. It would not be until World War II that offensive strategies such as blitzkrieg were once more shown to be highly efficient. However, due to the "military leaders preparing to fight the last war", much of military thought was influenced by the fact that cult of the offensive. Hence the military leaders, particularly among the Western Allies in the early phase of the war, tried to avoid offensive at all cost (what became known as the cult of the defensive, see Phony War).

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Powell, Robert. 2006. "War as a Commitment Problem." http://polisci.ucsd.edu/~bslantch/courses/pdf/powell-io2005.pdf
  2. ^ Reiter, Dan. 1995. "Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen." http://www.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2889(199523)20%3A2%3C5%3AETPKMP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F [JSTOR access required]
  3. ^ Snyder, Jack L., The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984
  4. ^ Azar Gat, The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1992
  5. ^ Taylor, A. J. P., War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began, London: Macdonald & Co., 1969
  6. ^ Dupuy, Trevor N, A Genius for War: the German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977
  7. ^ Ritter, Gerhard, The Schlieffen Plan; Critique of a Myth, London: O. Wolff, 1958

References[edit]

  • Stephen Van Evera, The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58–107, [1], JSTOR
  • Jack Snyder, Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 108–$146, JSTOR
  • Echevarria II A.J., The 'Cult of the Offensive' Revisited: Confronting Technological Change Before the Great War, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 25, Number 1, March 2002, pp. 199–214(16), IngentaConnect
  • Azar Gat, The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-820246-6, Google Print, p.114
  • John R. Carter, Airpower and the Cult of the Offensive
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFCujCmp1RQ Online Lecture of the Cult of the Offensive
  • Snyder, Jack L., The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984; ISBN 0-80-141657-4
  • Taylor, A. J. P., War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began, London: Macdonald & Co., 1969
  • Dupuy, Trevor N, A Genius for War: the German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977; ISBN 0-13-351114-6
  • Ritter, Gerhard, The Schlieffen Plan; Critique of a Myth, London: O. Wolff, 1958; RITTER