The Ideology of the Offensive

The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914

Jack Snyder
Copyright Date: 1984
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Ideology of the Offensive
    Book Description:

    Jack Snyder's analysis of the attitudes of military planners in the years prior to the Great War offers new insight into the tragic miscalculations of that era and into their possible parallels in present-day war planning. By 1914, the European military powers had adopted offensive military strategies even though there was considerable evidence to support the notion that much greater advantage lay with defensive strategies. The author argues that organizational biases inherent in military strategists' attitudes make war more likely by encouraging offensive postures even when the motive is self-defense.

    Drawing on new historical evidence of the specific circumstances surrounding French, German, and Russian strategic policy, Snyder demonstrates that it is not only rational analysis that determines strategic doctrine, but also the attitudes of military planners. Snyder argues that the use of rational calculation often falls victim to the pursuit of organizational interests such as autonomy, prestige, growth, and wealth. Furthermore, efforts to justify the preferred policy bring biases into strategists' decisions-biases reflecting the influences of parochial interests and preconceptions, and those resulting from attempts to simplify unduly their analytical tasks.

    The frightening lesson here is that doctrines can be destabilizing even when weapons are not, because doctrine may be more responsive to the organizational needs of the military than to the implications of the prevailing weapons technology. By examining the historical failure of offensive doctrine, Jack Snyder makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the causes of war.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6862-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-8)
  3. Preface
    (pp. 9-14)
    Jack Snyder
  4. 1 Military Bias and Offensive Strategy
    (pp. 15-40)

    All of the major continental powers entered World War I with offensive strategies; all suffered huge strategic costs when, predictably, their offensives failed to achieve their ambitious aims. These failed offensives created political and operational difficulties that haunted the states throughout the war. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, for example, helped bring Britain into the war, provoking the protracted naval blockade that the Germans had hoped to avoid. Similarly, the miscarriage of France’s Plan 17 allowed Germany to occupy large portions of northeastern France, hindering the operation of the French wartime economy and making more difficult a negotiated settlement on the basis...

  5. 2 France: Offensive Strategy as an Institutional Defense
    (pp. 41-56)

    In the years before the First World War, three problems preoccupied French military planners: the quantitative and qualitative superiority of the German army, the comparatively slow mobilization of the Russian army, and the unknown direction of the German attack in the west. Since these circumstances seem to indicate the need for a defensive, delaying strategy, one might speculate that the offensive French military strategy was shaped by the offensive political aim of recovering Alsace-Lorraine and not by military-operational considerations. In fact, however, the desire to recapture the provinces lost to Germany in 1870 had no major effect on French strategy....

  6. 3 France: Du Picq, Dreyfus, and the Errors of Plan 17
    (pp. 57-106)

    Between 1870 and 1898 the French military began to develop an organizational ideology centered on the vision of offensive operations carried out by a cohesive, professional army. This ideology helped to protect traditional military values and interests against proponents of a shortened term of military service. Since the threat to these interests was relatively moderate before 1898, the resulting ideological bias was also moderate.

    Ideological bias was greatest in abstract questions of operational doctrine and least in questions of concrete policy, such as war planning. This disparity occurred presumably because doctrine is the more public and the more closely related...

  7. 4 Germany: The Elusive Formula for Decisive Victory
    (pp. 107-124)

    Surrounded by “enemies on all sides, … Germany and Austria stand unprotected,” Alfred von Schlieffen wrote in 1909. “Around them, behind moat and wall, are the other Powers.” France, Britain, and Russia are all “implacable” foes, motivated by the desire for revanche, by commercial rivalry, and by racial antipathy. Despite their numerical superiority in military manpower, these encircling powers do not attack because “Germany and Austria are still too strong. They must first be weakened by internal conflicts” arising from strife among Austria’s nationalities and Germany’s parties. Then, “at the given moment, the doors are to be opened, the drawbridges...

  8. 5 Germany: The “Necessary” Is Possible
    (pp. 125-156)

    Between 1870 and 1914 German war planning was dominated by three figures—the elder Helmuth von Moltke until 1890, Alfred von Schlieffen between 1890 and 1905, and the younger Helmuth von Moltke from 1906 until the outbreak of war. All three hoped to solve the problem of a two-front war by means of a rapid, decisive battle of encirclement on one of the fronts. They favored this formula, despite its operational difficulties, largely because it suited the institutional interests and professional outlook of the German military. The elder Moltke eventually bowed to operational realities and abandoned the quest for a...

  9. 6 Russia: Bureaucratic Politics and Strategic Priorities
    (pp. 157-164)

    Russian war planners had incentives to attempt offensives on both the German and the Austrian fronts. Attacking German East Prussia would relieve German pressure on France in the opening weeks of the conflict, while attacking Austrian Galicia would be geographically easier and politically more appealing in light of Russia’s imperialist aims in the Balkans. At the same time, offensives against both enemies entailed serious risks. A campaign in East Prussia would have to contend with geographical barriers and a dense German rail net, which would facilitate the defenders’ maneuvers. A major campaign in Galicia, though operationally simpler, would draw forces...

  10. 7 Russia: The Politics and Psychology of Overcommitment
    (pp. 165-198)

    The story of Russian war planning from 1910 to 1914 can be told in terms of the intellectual and political battle between Generals Iurii N. Danilov and Mikhail V. Alekseev and the changing circumstances that determined which of the two enjoyed the upper hand. Danilov’s defensive plan of 1910 reflected Russia’s weakness after the Russo-Japanese War, uncertainty about German and French behavior in the event of war, as well as Danilov’s personal pessimism about Russia’s ability to compete with the awesomely efficient Germans. By 1912, however, the rationale for caution was mitigated by increasing Russian strength, the tightening of the...

  11. 8 The Determinants of Military Strategy
    (pp. 199-216)

    The choice of a military strategy is one of the weightiest tasks facing the modern nation-state. Strategy influences both the likelihood of war and the probability that, if war occurs, the state will achieve its aims. Before 1914 the continental European powers adopted offensive military strategies that increased the likelihood of war and decreased the probability of their success in war. These offensives not only defied the constraints of time, space, and technology, they also heightened the perceived advantage of preventive attacks and placed time pressures on crisis diplomacy. Strategy that goes this far awry demands explanation.

    At the most...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-254)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 255-262)
  14. Index
    (pp. 263-267)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 268-269)