John Ellis figuratively stuck his nose into the sweaty boots of soldiers in his best known World War II book, "The Sharp End of War," to describe the life of ordinary soldiers from 1939 to 1945. Now the British historian has written the large end, the sums, as it were, of the combatants in mankind's worst war.
"Brute Force" applies new quantitative scholarship to World War II, but it is written so skillfully that the reader greets voluminous footnotes with pleasure, not the usual guilty dread. This thick book is a mental feast for those who have long sought a key to understanding how and why the war unfolded as it did.
Ellis is not impressed by heroics, or reputations, or specific battles, or most of the men and deeds that have made World War II a subject of hundreds of books. In fact, his usual tack is to debunk the reputations (Montgomery, Patton, Harris, MacArthur all suffer) and deflate the heroes. He is impressed by numbers--of divisions, of ships, of trucks, of guns, of tons of iron ore and coal.
It is by poring over these bills of lading, these yellowing papers showing the order of battle, the simplest, barest building blocks of history, that he reaches his remarkable conclusions. The war, he says, was not won by courage or tactics or strategy, but by the numbers.
By the numbers, Ellis concludes that it was not the American soldiers or their allies who beat the Germans, but the Russians. By the numbers, he concludes that the United States, in spite of its important military contribution to the war in Europe and the Pacific, was far more important as a producer of machines and supplies; and even so, the American wealth of material allowed this country to waste time, lives and billions in ineptitude and duplication. Brute force, the title, alludes not only to the method the United States fell into for waging war but also to the dismissive English put-down: "brute force and ignorance."
He is merciless in his treatment of American management of the Pacific war, pointing out that a naval blockade would have accomplished the same thing as the land and sea battles and the atom bomb.
He turns familiar events on their ear with his statistics. Under his numerical analysis, for instance, the Russian Army did not defeat the German legions. Instead, he proves that the Germans destroyed themselves by pouring men and metal at an endless supply of Russian targets until the Germans simply had nothing left. Ellis proves that the Russians were able to provide more targets than the Germans had bullets--and that decided the contest.
To use another stunning example, Ellis proves by his method that the real achievement of the carpet bombing of Germany was not the destruction of the famous "bottlenecks" of the Nazi war machine, nor the destruction of German urban life. (Other historians, including Albert Speer, already have made this point.) The real achievement was to lure out German pilots with enough targets to the point that the Luftwaffe simply wasted itself trying to shoot them down.
Ellis is not content with this conclusion. When he analyzes the Allies' "strategic bombing" program, his cool appraisal is that it was not what it seemed, and it also was completely wrong-headed. The most vulnerable targets in Germany, he argues, were not plants that produced oil for the well known ball bearings, but something far simpler, far more exposed, far more fragile, far easier to hit: electricity production and distribution, the common element to all industrial production. Yet the leaders of the bombing effort did not understand this in 1942 or later.
This book will be controversial because it is a thorough put-down of the United States. We have been accustomed to our heroes--Patton, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, Admiral King and others. We are prouder of World War II than of any other war, I venture, because we did not hesitate to help Britain when she fought on alone in Europe, and we did not hesitate to fight a war on two fronts when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We were great and we were good.
But we were not great and good in just the way we thought. "It could well be argued, indeed," writes Ellis in a typical measured, symphonic paragraph, "that the most significant figures in the tables just cited are the 2,400,000 military trucks produced in the United States as against only 346,000 in Germany. Goering's taunt about (American) 'cars and refrigerators' becomes yet more fatuous, completely underestimating as it does not only the phenomenal productive potential of the American econonomy but also the central role of the internal-combustion engine in modern warfare. Many battlefields have been cited as being particularly significant in Germany's defeat in the Second World War. Not the least of them should be Detroit."
The humble trucks, you see, have a story to tell. In North Africa, in Russia, in the long German retreat from Normandy to Berlin from June 1944 to April 1945, it was the trucks, or the lack of them--not "the intrepid exploits of few gung-ho tank commanders"--that won and lost the war. It was the trucks that were tasked with carrying the gasoline, the ammunition, the food--without which the thin-stretched Germans, in particular, could not operate.
A total of 432,659 American trucks went to Russia under Lend-Lease arrangements, and it is to Russia that Ellis returns again and again to drive home his most important point--his convincing argument that Russian blood and American steel were the heaviest weights in the balance of victory. Of American steel, most people in this country know a good deal, and the fact that the entire industrial base was turned to production of munitions is still well remembered here. But the appalling sacrifice--not heroic exactly; call it benumbed or heedless--of Russia's soldiers is less known.
On the eastern front, according to Ellis' well documented calculations, between 1941 and the end of the war the Germans lost 2,300,000 men. The Russian total is generally accepted to be about 13,500,000. The Russians attacked throughout without counting the cost. On occasion, they simply marched across minefields to close with their foe because their commanders' estimated losses would be about equivalent to those they would suffer if the Germans were using artillery instead of mines. Comments Ellis: "There can be no doubt that it was Russian arms and Russian blood, the pitiless, ceaseless hemorrhage of a whole people . . . Perhaps even if Russia had been knocked out of the war, the Americans would still eventually have invaded Europe. But in that case they would have come up against 150 more divisions they had to fight and one million extra German soldiers they had to kill."
All books about World War II circle about the extraordinary enemy, Germany. Ellis' fascinating work is no exception, yet he is as confounded as the rest. His research shows only that after 1941 there was no possible way for them to win--and it shows too that the Germans knew this all along. Yet they kept on, with their extraordinary skill in battle, their intelligent use of slender resources, their fierceness and discipline, their wicked strength.
This is the dark question that always lures us to their World War II story.