Review: J.F.C Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961. Rutgers University Press, 1961.
of War is the eccentric product of an
eccentric mind. There is no denying
that J.F.C. Fuller, one of the pioneers of tank warfare, was an brilliant
military thinker, but he cannot be called a historian by any stretch of the
imagination. As the book is a
concoction of Fuller's opinions and prejudices, my reaction to it depended on
whether I agreed with him or not. His
evidence is nonexistent; long sections of the book rely on a single secondary
source, and he only cites primary sources that agree with his point of view. When I happened
to agree with him, he was tolerable, even insightful; otherwise his offhand
comments were simply infuriating.
Fuller had two goals in the book. The first, and the purported
"thesis," was to examine the "changes in civilization on human conflict
. . . and trace their influence on the conduct of war." While his approach is unsystematic and simplistic,
he is reasonably successful. He proves
nothing, of course, but he has some plausible and intriguing ideas. He sees three great revolutions which
changed war dramatically over the past two centuries: the French, the
Industrial, and the Russian. Walter
Millis has done this better, but Fuller has some contributions of his own. For instance, he suggests that the
separation of soldier and civilian which began in the seventeenth century with
the first standing armies made possible the restrictions on warfare which
developed at about the same time.
Fuller is an especially astute student of Clausewitz, both illustrating
and using his theories throughout the book.
Fuller's second goal was to critique the military and
political conduct of the Allies in the two world wars to show how they made
"such a ghastly hash of it." (12)
On the political side, he is farthest out on the limb of his own
opinions. He is clearly a fascist--this
is not meant as slander, but simply to clarify his perspective. He believed that American in intervention in
both wars was a disaster for Europe; a German victory in World War I would have
been preferable to "the Carthaginian peace" imposed by the Allies,
and German control of Europe would have been preferable to the Bolsheviks. Despite his repugnant political views, he
nevertheless scores some telling points.
His criticisms of the British peripheral operations in World War I are
well-founded, and he blasts the Allies in World War II for failing to keep
sight of the political aims of victory.
As usual, he is best when he is dealing with military matters. For example, he makes a very case against
the moral and military basis of so-called "strategic bombing" (which
is especially strong because he actually has some evidence for once).
of War should not be read as a work
of history. It is useful only as a gold
mine of interesting and controversial ideas.
Fuller positively revels in his outrageousness, which makes for bad
history but good reading. Since he is
also a brilliant military thinker, the barrage of opinions he throws out
occasionally contains some sharp insights.
Since he does not hesitate to challenge the most sacred orthodoxies of
good, liberal middle-class Americans, even the reactions he provokes are constructive.