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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 351


Review:                  J.F.C Fuller, The Conduct of War, 1789-1961.  Rutgers University Press, 1961.

The Conduct 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.[1]  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).

The Conduct 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. 

[1]  One of many egregious examples: "Another dupe was General George C. Marshall . . . an honest and simple man who . . . 'became an easy prey to crypto-Communists, or Communist-sympathizing sycophants, who played on his vanity.'" (269)  Fuller's source for this nutshell portrait of Marshall was the memoirs of General Albert Wedemeyer, clearly the authoritative source for understanding the highest levels of the U.S. government during World War II.

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