Magical Weapons for Ukraine: Lessons From World War I

Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

If you read the mainstream media, it would seem the answer to the Russia-Ukraine War, now about to enter its second year of mass death and widespread destruction, is weapons of various sorts. Western tanks like the German Leopard and American Abrams. Fighter jets like the F-16 produced by Lockheed Martin. If only Ukraine had more tanks, more jets, and the like, they would be able decisively to defeat the Russian military, ejecting it from Ukrainian territory, even from the Crimea, so the argument goes.

As a historian of technology and warfare, I’ve studied this belief in magical weapons. History teaches us that weapons alone usually do not determine winners and losers in war. Weapons themselves are rarely decisive, especially when the sides engaged fight symmetrically. In such cases, new weaponry often increases the carnage.

Consider the events of World War I. Various weapons were tried in an attempt to win the war decisively through military action. These weapons included poison gas (of various types), tanks, flamethrowers, and submarines, among others. None of these weapons broke the stalemate on the Western Front. Countermeasures were found. And World War I dragged on for more than four long years, producing hecatombs of dead.

What did work? In a word, exhaustion. In the spring of 1918, Germany launched massive, last-ditch, offensives to win the war before U.S. troops arrived in Europe in large numbers. (The US had entered the war in 1917 but was still mobilizing in 1918.) The Germans came close to winning, but when their offensives grounded to a halt, they had little left in the tank to endure Allied counterattacks. Yes, the Allies had more tanks than the Germans, and were learning to use them effectively with airpower in combined arms assaults. But what truly mattered was exhaustion within the German ranks, exacerbated by the Spanish flu, hunger, and demoralization.

No magical weapon won World War I. And no magical weapon is going to provide Ukraine a decisive edge in its struggle with Russia. Certainly not a hundred or so Western tanks or a few dozen fighter jets.

Indeed, looking at some of the media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War in the West, you might be excused from mistaking it for advertising videos at a weapons trade show. Over the last year, we’ve learned a lot about Javelin and Stinger missiles, HIMARS rocket launchers, and of course various tanks, fighter jets, and the like. But we’ve seen very little coverage of the mass carnage on both sides. It’s been said the real costs of war will never get in the history books, for who wishes to confront fully the brutality and madness of industrialized warfare?

I’m in the middle of watching the new German version of All Quiet on the Western Front, a film deservedly nominated for an Oscar for best picture (available on Netflix). It’s one of the better war films I’ve seen in its depiction of the horrific and dehumanizing aspects of modern industrial warfare. Something like this movie is happening currently in Ukraine, but our leaders, supported by the media, think the answer to the carnage is to send even more destructive weaponry so that more troops (and civilians) can die.

Magical weapons are not the answer. For of course there’s nothing magical about weapons of mass destruction.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.

39 thoughts on “Magical Weapons for Ukraine: Lessons From World War I”

  1. You wouldn’t be at all mistaken for thinking media coverage of the war was advertising for weapons. What did the author think it was?

  2. I rather doubt that the west’s sending weapons to Ukraine is intended to ‘win’ the war against Russia but is actually for the purpose of consuming the output of the MIC and creating further demand for additional production and the obscene profits that result from it for these ‘merchants of death’.

    1. It’s also intended to weaken Russia for the purpose of U.S. hegemony. U.S. leaders have said as much to the press, this isn’t some secret. Unfortunately, our media is a propaganda machine, so they don’t emphasize the important things like those statements, and sometimes don’t even report them.

      1. The USA thinks Russia’ s war in Ukraine will eventually weaken it but doesn’t think its “Forever Wars” will weaken the NATO countries. That’s fuzzy logic.

        1. The U.S. thinks it can bog down Russia in Ukraine like it did in Afghanistan. I’ve never studied war so I have no opinion on the chances of this, and really don’t care anyway. All I care about is that I’m anti-war and anti-U.S. empire.

  3. Weapons can be very decisive where there’s a huge discrepancy. For example, consider the colonization of the Americas or the U.S. oil wars in Iraq. Neither of the victims of these wars had a chance, because the attackers had vastly superior weapons. Population is also clearly a factor here, but it seems to me that the much more technologically advanced weapons of the attackers was the deciding factor. There are of course exceptions, like the Vietnam and Afghan wars, but even though the U.S. was eventually forced out of Afghanistan, the U.S. did remove its rulers for 20 years.

    The difference in Ukraine is that the discrepancy between the military technologies of the U.S. and Russia is not that great, and Russia has a lot more troops than Ukraine. And of course those defending have an advantage over those attacking.

  4. The Wall Street Journal is reporting it’s going to be over a year before those tanks get there, THEN they’ll send in the jets.
    In other words, the Democrats are planning to run as a political party running a hot war with “advisors” and “support troops” (to just cook and clean for those advisors of course, ignore the guns that they carry) to actually be in those tanks and who ever the GOP runs will be antiwar now that the likely one is sharing it wouldn’t have happened under him and it’s time to stop shooting and talk instead.
    I wonder who the Bushies of this nation will support? It’s amazing that a Democrat President is as war-like just like that former CIA’s Bush’s was
    You know it’s a topsy-turvy world when Greenwald features quite a few voices from the populist wing of the GOP along with those of the Left to help make his points on his nightly show.

    1. Those who have the best views on the left and right can agree on a lot of issues. They’re normally considered far left and far right, but a much more accurate description would be the best of the left and the best of the right. I don’t mean to say they agree on everything, but no real conservative would support war, nor would any real leftist, to list just one example.

      1. My college econ professor explained it well when he described himself as a leftwing populist. He was the department head and his head professor was socialist. My French Revolution class (called the first communist revolution by some) was eye opening too.
        In our economic history class we went from Plato to Marx but we also studied his contemporaries at the beginning who had their own version of unrealistic utopia but were sent to the camps occasionally but mosly were killed.
        The guy was into the fight of the Progressives vs. the Populists as an area of study. Honestly the reason why I look at Progressives a little leary was their love how “the trains ran on time” (read Mussilini’s Doctrine of Fascism and you’ll see more of the Democratic Party than the Republican in it btw).
        Personally local control to me is best. Let the community organize and decide among themselves is better to me than control by a centralized government .
        Add to that, my Native american blood; the US imperialism we bitch about is nothing compared to what was done to us by many countries ( give us furs, be slaves and a steady supply of women or you die” was the way of life efore the US got control and the other countries left here) of so “the US is worse than anyone else” stuff really falls on death ears to me.

        1. I totally support local control with two exceptions:

          For environmental laws, the most environmentally beneficial (what some would call “restrictive) law should prevail. No one has a right to pollute, harm or destroy ecosystems or habitats, or kill any plants or animals they don’t eat, and that stuff is far more important than whether control is local, county, state, or federal.

          Civil liberties must also be protected from locals who would eliminate or diminish them. The systems as it is now is good, at least in theory, which is that the federal laws for civil liberties set the floor, but more local governmental units may provide stronger protections.

          As to Native colonial issues, the problem is and was the colonizers. It doesn’t matter which country they came from (and they obviously didn’t come from the not-yet-existing U.S.), all colonizers are bad, doesn’t matter where or who. But that said, the U.S. is the current dominant empire on the planet, probably the most powerful one ever. The U.S. is the evil empire, Mordor, whatever you want to call it. Those European countries you mentioned are totally small potatoes in comparison, and have now become nothing but vassal states of the U.S., as can clearly be seen with the Russia/Ukraine situation.

          1. I can agree, but look at how other nations like China, Russia, and those in the EU treat nations (heck, add in how large minority or low caste people within their nations are treated and included darn near every nation in this world to this) and their citizens when their corporations arrive to remove natural resources or just ship arms in to destabilize. To say the US is unique in world horror is a simplistic and uninformed view to me.

          2. I don’t live in those countries. I live, pay taxes and vote in the U.S., and that’s where my focus is. It’s nothing but hypocrisy for Americans to complain about other countries considering that the U.S. is the most evil of all, by body count since WWII alone.

          3. I get your point but to claim the US is evil without assigning that label to all of the earth’s nations is kind of self loathing of oneself and your neighbors for actions that are the norm, not the exception.
            But it does make oneself feel superior doesn’t it?

          4. I said, “the U.S. is the most evil of all.” By definition, that means that they’re all evil, and we agree on this. Large countries are the worst, but people should be living in small communities tribally. I strongly oppose statism, but we need to greatly lower our population before we can get rid of it, and this is a long-term goal that won’t be reached for several generations.

          5. Lower our population? Just how does an anarchist or even a garden variety Libertarian do that without the heavy hand of government?
            Even China couldn’t make the one child nonsense work and those fascists really tried.

          6. If all you’ve been exposed to regarding China’s one-child-family policy is U.S. propaganda, which your comment shows is the case, you’re clueless about this. That policy is credited with saving approximately 400 million births — which is more than the entire population of the U.S. — and China’s population has recently started to decline as a result. The one-child-family policy was as far from being “nonsense” as it gets, and is in fact what the entire planet needs until human population is much lower than it was even before industrial civilization provided the artificial fertilizer that allowed human population to increase beyond one billion.

            And I don’t know where you get the idea that I’m an anarchist or Libertarian. I’m neither. I am, first and foremost, a radical environmentalist and deep ecologist, along with being unequivocally anti-war.

          7. Propoganda?
            You might want to tell that to my Chinese classmates during that era.
            Somehow, despite being from China they were not as informed as you…..
            Want to share how you propose to enforce caps on how many children a family can have?
            How does being antiwar equate with government restriction of family size?

          8. It’s antiwar because:

            1) Jeff is antiwar; and
            2) The rest of humanity isn’t as evolved and enlightened as Jeff; so
            3) The rest of humanity needs to do whatever Jeff says so they can become as evolved and enlightened as him, and thus become antiwar.

          9. I’m feeling very chagrined….. now that you’ve explained so succinctly why Jeff is so great…….

          10. Wow Thomas, a personal attack? I expect much better from a moderator on this or any other site.

            To respond to your personal attack, which I don’t normally do and won’t do again here: My reason for wanting to lower human population is for the good of the Earth and all the life here. Humans are a minor concern in comparison, because we are just one species out of at least millions, probably tens of millions, and because we are causing the problem.

            I’ve never said anything about me being more evolved than anyone else, and I do stick by what I’ve said about human mental and spiritual evolution and the lack thereof. If I were removed from this planet, everything I said still stands.

            Why you said that everyone needs to do what I say is beyond me. This site if for discussing issues, and I’m stating my ideas and points of view, along with some objectively provable facts. The fact that you reacted this way to my comments says a lot more about you than about me.

          11. If you’re no more highly evolved than the other eight billion people on the planet, how do you know that humanity isn’t yet evolved enough and what to do about it?

            You’re correct:

            This site is for discussing issues. You’re free to state your ideas and points of view, and to offer such putative evidence for those ideas and points of view as you like.

            And so is everyone else, including me.

            “Moderator” refers to my job enforcing certain site guidelines. It doesn’t give me any special status as a commenter. When I comment, I’m doing exactly the same thing you are — stating my ideas and points of view, etc.

          12. I’ve never claimed to be more evolved than everyone else. In psychology what you’re doing is called “projecting.” There are many people more mentally and spiritually evolved than me, and I aspire to be as evolved as they were and are. Stop obsessing on me and comment on the issues I raise.

          13. I attended a lecture, regarding China’s one-child-family policy, by a fellow former Earth First!er who had just returned from China, which is where I got some of my information for this. Saying that you had Chinese classmates is irrelevant if you don’t say what their complaints were. I fully realize that some local officials over-zealously and in some cases illegally enforced the one-child-family policy, but that’ doesn’t at all make it a bad policy. And your classmates were probably the types who disliked the Chinese government and bought into the evil U.S. individualist money-worshiping attitude, so I’d have little respect for their opinions anyway. (People who move to the U.S. from places like Russia, China, and Cuba are usually rabid pro-capitalists, pro-individualists, and the biggest materialists in those countries.) I’ve seen people in China interviewed (in addition to my friend who was there), and they all seemed content with the policy, because they realized that there were far too many people there. I’ve also seen young people in China interviewed after the one-child-family policy was changed to a two-child-family policy — do you even know about this, or do you falsely believe that the policy was eliminated? — and they all said they didn’t intend to have more than one child anyway, which is a big victory for the Earth and all the life here.

            This policy doesn’t have a hard “cap” on the number of children people may have. It’s a carrot-and-stick policy that provides things like free health care and education if you limit your family size, and fines if you have too many children. While I would love it if people would voluntarily limit their families to one child until the human population is greatly reduced, humans have shown that they need positive and negative incentives to do this, at least until it becomes normalized.

            The biggest reason by far that human population needs to be reduced is for environmental and ecological reasons. As to war, overpopulation is the root cause of war. War is as old as civilization, because people in civilization are overpopulated and therefore can’t live on the local resources, so they have to attack others and take their resources. Derrick Jensen has done excellent work on this, I suggest reading some of it if you’re really interested.

          14. Lol
            So you now admit there was a policy and you like the authoritarian aspects of it too. I’m glad we cleared that up.
            Research the beginning of organized agriculture. 1 in 10 deaths in those early groupings of almost humans were caused by raiders who had not figured out how to plant seeds. That’s where it all began you might say.

          15. I never said that I liked the authoritarian aspect of China’s one-child-family policy, or of any other policy for that matter. What I said is that because of humans’ total lack of responsibility regarding this matter, that authority is necessary. The only effective non-coercive method of reducing birth rates that I know of is educating and empowering girls and women, as they successfully did in Kerala, India. But that only brought their birthrate down to replacement level, which doesn’t fix the human overpopulation problem.

            I have anarchist tendencies too. For example, I support legalization of drugs, prostitution, and gambling, and I totally oppose things like helmet and seat belt laws, because I strongly oppose nanny-state BS. But freedoms come with responsibilities, and without those responsibilities no one deserves the freedoms, nor should they have them. The Libertarian idea that everyone should just be able to do what they want is the ideology of a child. People commit great harms when they act irresponsibly, and that shouldn’t be allowed.

          16. So you don’t like China idea of authority but you believe that “authority is necessary” to make the world population reduce itself to the levels you believe is OK…… got it.

          17. Nothing to do with China. I don’t like any authority, but because humans are so mentally and spiritually unevolved, it’s badly needed. If you’re an actual anarchist, then you should understand this concept. You only get freedoms when you act responsibly with them.

          18. So the anarchist has decided “people only get rights when you act responsibly”.
            That’s really a different view I must say…!

          19. Anarchy is not chaos. The idea of anarchy is that when people become responsible enough, government can be eliminated because it will no longer be needed. Just advocating for no laws or rules is a rather cartoonish version of anarchy. And as I’ve said multiple times, I’m not an anarchist.

          20. Ok, you are just the guy who “has anarchist tendacies” who believes people need to earn rights to “deserve them”
            Honestly you’ll never make a convincing case to me that your vision of population control is needed nor of your vision that people somehow need to meet some standard (of yours) before they receive rights.
            Somehow your vision of population and your vision of individual rights sure seem connected and makes me wonder just how authoritarian you actually are when it comes to those who don’t share your views.

          21. Human overpopulation is, first and foremost, an ecological issue that primarily affects the Earth,
            its ecosystems & habitats, and all the nonhuman native life on Earth. You obviously don’t know nor care anything about this, so I won’t discuss it further. You’re so wrapped up in your “freedom” BS that you can’t think critically or even clearly. “Freedom” is a BS issue. Freedom to do what, exactly? You know what the founding genociders/Earth estroyers/slave owners meant by freedom? Freedom to make money. Wow, what a lofty goal!

          22. Sure buddy we need you to tell us how to depopulate the world to enact your green dream and the heck with “freedom”
            Fascists really must love you and your style of anarchy.
            Thank you for deciding not to share your views to me anymore; I’m about laughed out any way.

          23. The idea of anarchism is that having rulers is a bad idea. It doesn’t imply the absence of rules, just of entities with monopolies on the use of force to impose those rules. The idea of anarchism is that no one is “responsible enough” to be trusted with such power.

            My own anarchism is not programmatic. I don’t envision a utopia. I just note that the state is an unnecessary evil, a cancer, and decline to treat it as anything other than what it is. As for what happens when the state (which, in its modern form, is less than 400 years old and a signal failure if human well-being is the criterion of success) disintegrates, the only answer I have is “hopefully something better and not just another round of states.”

          24. “People commit great harms when they act irresponsibly, and that shouldn’t be allowed.”

            Unfortunately, giving some people power to “allow” or “not allow” others to do things means that the people given that power will commit great harms by acting irresponsibly. Power corrupts.

          25. Societal norms are probably more effective than people in power enforcing laws, but there has to be some constraint on behavior. This is an aspect of animal, or at least mammal, personalities, not just humans. It’s the same reason that grizzlies are so ornery: they have no natural enemies, so they feel entitled to just do whatever they want, and they get very angry when they’re prevented from doing so. I guess that’s how Libertarians came into existence also.

          26. Rulers feel entitled to do whatever they want, and they get very angry when they’re prevented from doing so.

            The structures that provide for rule mean that rulers are empowered to be much more violent/aggressive in that respect than grizzlies, or than people who don’t have an overgrown street gang (“government”) working for them.

            I’m an anarchist, not a utopian. I understand that there will always be violence between humans. The state just puts that violence on steroids is all.

          27. The real problem here is overpopulation. Humans who live in naturally small communities don’t have these problems, because no one in those communities has that much power.

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