One of the key concepts of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (1832) is that of “the culminating point of victory,” when one side has achieved the maximum possible military advantage relative to the available resources and feasible political aims. Beyond that, battlefield gains will become increasingly marginal relative to the costs and risks incurred and, if it presses too far, the attacking side risks major setbacks and even catastrophic defeat. “There are strategic attacks that have led directly to peace, but these are the minority,” Clausewitz wrote. “Most of them only lead up to the point where their remaining strength is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace. Beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack.”
This reflects one of Clausewitz’s famous paradoxes of warfare, as well as his conclusion that defense is naturally the stronger form of warfare. (Edward Luttawk considered these paradoxes, and especially the culminating point of victory, in his 1987 book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, revised and enlarged in 2001.) The simplest example of neglect of the culminating point of victory is that of an army outrunning its lines of supply and becoming vulnerable to enemy counterattack, but there are many factors involved, political and economic as well as military. Napoleon and Hitler are commonly cited as conquerors who pushed past the culminating point of victory by invading Russia. By contrast, Bismarck was a statesman who appreciated the limits of military success and who knew when to quit (although, by insisting on the acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine in the peace settlement with France, even Bismarck arguably overshot the mark).
The notion of a culminating point of war, short of occupying the enemy capital and imposing terms, can seem a bit odd to Americans, who appreciate Grant’s formulation of unconditional surrender. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anything short of that when dealing with Hitler. Total war, another of Clausewitz’s contributions to the strategic literature, creates its own political logic (or rather, threatens to obliterate political logic). But Americans do have recent experiences with limited wars, conventional and unconventional, in which the culminating point has become an issue.
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During the Korean War, for example, the United States arguably pressed military success too far after the Inchon landings in the fall of 1950. The Truman Administration had previously decided to limit its military effort in Korea in order to buy time to rearm and to strengthen its defense posture elsewhere, especially in Western Europe. The administration believed that the overriding objective of American strategy was to deter general war with the Soviet bloc if at all possible, and to wage war successfully if deterrence failed. Operations in Korea were decidedly secondary to those purposes. Given this limitation, the American-led forces should have stopped at the 38th parallel, or at the waist of the peninsula, rather than attempt to unify Korea. After the Chinese intervened and nearly broke the overextended American Army, the United States faced the unpalatable choice of escalating the war (which, among other things, might have fractured the newly-formed NATO alliance), or of reestablishing a line of defense somewhere further south, near the 38th parallel, and negotiating a half-a-loaf settlement at a time and place of its adversaries’ choosing, after suffering tens of thousands of additional casualties. Both of these outcomes were inferior, the former dangerously so, to that which might have been achieved with greater circumspection earlier in the war.
There are counter-arguments to this account of American mistakes in Korea, but its general lessons clearly influenced the thinking of the George H.W. Bush Administration, in its dealings with the Soviet Union/Russia, and, more clearly, when it decided to call a halt to offensive ground operations against Iraq in February 1991. The American-led coalition had achieved extraordinary success in liberating Kuwait and destroying substantial Iraqi ground forces in Iraq proper. The Bush Administration concluded that to press on, especially in an effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power, was to go beyond the culminating point of victory. Such a course would exceed the stated objectives of the war, which were to reestablish the sovereignty of Kuwait and to degrade Iraqi military power to the point where Baghdad no longer posed an offensive threat to the region. The United States risked operational setbacks if it pressed deeper into Iraq. The international coalition assembled with such great care by Washington might well collapse, and some of its members might actively oppose the U.S. The Bush Administration assumed that Saddam would not survive the humiliation of such a defeat as he had already suffered; but in any case, if America continued the war, it would inevitably be drawn into the maelstrom of Iraqi politics and very likely an Iraqi civil war.
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There is much to chew on here. Bush Administration critics argued for the next decade that it had stopped short of the culminating point of victory, which did not require a march to Baghdad and full-scale American occupation of the country. A few more days or weeks of war would have sufficed to destroy the Republican Guard and Saddam’s security forces, which would have driven him out of power. After Saddam fell, there was a reasonable chance that a decent indigenous regime would come into being that, with American assistance, would help support a much more stable Persian Gulf region. After the difficult events of 2003-2008, Bush Administration defenders, and leading Democratic foreign policy experts, claimed strategic vindication, although it could be argued that 1991, not 2003, was the proper time to have dealt with Saddam.
All of this is to say that there is no obvious formula, even in retrospect, to identify the culminating point in any particular war. But the intellectual effort to understand the parameters of victory is surely worth the trouble.
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This brings us to David Stevenson’s analysis of the decisive events of World War I, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (2011). The book is an excellent and comprehensive synthesis of recent research on the war. Stevenson details a number of the general reasons why the Allies won the war. They include advantages in natural resources and industrial production; in logistics and the ability to supply the ground forces, especially due to their command of the sea; the better use of military technology; superior intelligence services; a better allocation of manpower for the battlefield versus manpower for the supporting industrial base (in part because of the greater Allied willingness to use female labor); and a more stable domestic front, relatively speaking, “deliberately managed…by a combination of persuasion and of economic and political concessions, combined with a hard edge of repression.” The Allies, at the end of the war, also had superior political leadership under David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson and Vittorio Orlando (Stevenson believes the fact they were from the center-left was important).
For our purposes, we note that one of Stevenson’s major themes is that the German Western offensives of March-July 1918, despite their initial success, pushed the Central Powers past the culminating point of victory and created opportunities for an Allied victory that hitherto had not existed.
The year 1917 had gone badly for the Allies. The Nivelle offensive had failed miserably to break the defensive stalemate on the Western front. Germany was still entrenched in substantial portions of Northern France and Belgium. The French Army was dispirited and mutinous. There was growing anti-war sentiment in England. Russia had suffered revolution and, in early 1918, removed itself from the war and made major territorial concessions to Germany (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). On the positive side for the Allies, the United States had entered the war, although it styled itself an Associated rather than Allied power, and the German U-boat campaign at times threatened to prevent American reinforcements from arriving in Europe and to starve England.
The Germans and their Central Power allies also faced major problems of their own, including serious manpower shortages, domestic political unrest, ethnic tensions in the dual monarchy, and economic difficulties and food shortages caused in part by the British blockade. The two sides were arguably in a race to the bottom, a competition in competitive disintegration.
This left Germany with two basic choices in the spring of 1918, when it seemed temporarily to hold the better of two mediocre hands. First, Berlin could remain on the strategic defensive and seek a negotiated settlement in the West by offering attractive terms, especially to the British (over Belgium) and the Americans. The kaiser’s government would simultaneously stabilize its domestic front with democratic reforms and with resources exploited from the newly-conquered Eastern territories (which would also provide the basis for resumption of the war in future years, under more favorable conditions). If the Allied powers refused a negotiated settlement and tried to take the offensive in the West, or outflank the Germans in the East, Germany was still positioned to exploit the advantages of defense to bleed the Allies further, to the point where public opinion would compel Western governments to settle on terms acceptable to the Central Powers.
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The second German option was to go for broke: to resume the offensive in the West which had been halted in 1914 and dictate the terms of a settlement after decisive victories in France. From the perspective of Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, who essentially controlled the German government, it was not clear that Central Powers would win the game of competitive disintegration if things continued as they were. Most importantly, the Americans were coming and however raw their troops might be, sheer numbers were bound to give the Allies a decisive battlefield advantage. The U-Boat campaign had not choked off the Atlantic lines of communication. The Germans were coming to believe that new tactics and technology were on the verge of restoring offensive mobility to the battlefield, a development which would work to Germany’s disadvantage once the Americans were fully established in France. In 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had watched with alarm certain British innovations along these lines, including the introduction of the tank. They believed that the eventual resumption of the Allied offensive must be preempted by a massive German campaign that utilized newly-devised methods, such as innovative artillery techniques and infiltration tactics, which would support an effective offensive.
According to Stevenson’s analysis, Germany’s decision to take the offensive course pushed them beyond the culminating point. They soon lost the marginal strategic advantages they had achieved at such great cost through early 1918. The Germans effectively committed suicide in order to keep from being killed. The decision to take the offensive in 1918 reinforced the underlying fundamental mistake by Germany in 1914, which was to be willing to engage in a two-front war. (The second major blunder was to provoke the United States to enter the Allied side by engaging in a U-Boat campaign that was inadequately resourced and executed.) The German spring offensives had some successes but they had the effect of bringing Germans out of their fortifications into the open, where they suffered rates of attrition that could not be sustained given their domestic manpower crisis. The much-vaunted German offensive tactics were insufficient to create the sort of operational mobility that would have overcome the advantages of defense. The morale of German soldiers plummeted and rates of desertion and malingering skyrocketed. And in one of the paradoxes of war, the German offensive was successful enough to scare the Allied political and military leaders into settling their differences over the conduct of the war, making major improvements in inter-allied cooperation, and accelerating the deployment of American troops into the combat zone.
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Ludendorff made a number of key mistakes in the planning and execution of 1918’s spring campaign, but, based on Stevenson’s analysis, in the end the deck was stacked too heavily against the Germans once they decided to resume the offensive. After several months of fighting, German manpower was depleted and the troops mal-deployed for defense, to the point where the Germans were ripe to be counterattacked. The Allies promptly did so once Ludendorff’s offensive ran out of steam. They also learned much from how the Germans had fought in the spring offensives and applied those lessons to their own evolving tactics and operational art to fracture the cohesion of the German Army and send it reeling back towards Germany. Ludendorff panicked; with the specter of revolution in the air at home, he dumped responsibility on to the politicians, who agreed to an armistice that the Allies (in Stevenson’s opinion) rightly accepted, on highly favorable terms. They wisely avoided trying to dictate peace in Berlin, which might well have pushed them past their culminating point of victory.