The Hall of Mirrors, War and Warfare in the 20th century: a review

I found this a difficult book to read. The topic is central to a lot of my own reading and research for wargaming and for personal interest, “war and warfare in the twentieth century”. The blurb presents it as a work of analysis, a “deep look at war and warfare” in the period. It didn’t feel like that to me.

The Hall of Mirrors

The author, Jim Storr, is Professor of War Studies at the Norwegian Military Academy. However, the book contains surprisingly few footnotes and many unsubstantiated categorical declarations. For analysis, I would expect statements to be backed by reasoned arguments and supporting evidence. For much of the book, these are lacking.

For example, the claim that Lloyd George’s memoirs “almost single-handedly destroyed the reputation of several other people, particularly Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig” surely needs some supporting evidence, even if true (others were also critical of Haig, for example Churchill, though less vitriolic). One of the most egregious examples is the following breathtaking quote (p267): “The Luftwaffe stalled its aircraft development in the middle years of the war and ended up with a generation of aircraft which were little better than those of 1939”. This overlooks at least 4 major advances pioneered and used with effect by the Germans late in the war: the Messerschmitt Me 262 (the first operational jet fighter), various helicopters and autogiros operational from 1944, the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket. This short list omits less successful aircraft like the Me 163 rocket-powered interceptor and the Heinkel 177 heavy bomber.

I suspect that the author made some statements simply to be polemical. He caricatures the popular conception of the Great War – “a bad war fought by bad men for no purpose; nothing but pointless slaughter” as a rhetorical starting point for arguing against that view. However, the opposing view has been pretty much mainstream academic opinion within military history and war studies for decades, and I have several books in my own shelves to support that view. Knocking over a caricature is hardly deep analysis. Another example refers to the May 1940 campaign in France to claim that it wasn’t Guderian’s or Rommel’s attacks that unhinged the French Army, but rather Kempf’s 6th Panzer Division’s advance to Moncornet. “The dominant narrative for this operation comes from Guderian’s memoirs. Rommel’s activities also attract historians’ attention”, he says (p128). “Studying the map displays a different picture.” However, reading Guderian’s memoirs reveals a different picture too: far from ignoring Kempf’s achievements, Guderian describes arriving at Moncornet and discussing the situation with Kempf, who was later awarded the Knights Cross for his achievements.

The first half of the book strays into narrative occasionally, which threw me off the argument many times. Perhaps there could have been more explicit sub-headings to break up sections with different purposes?

Elements of the book are well-written and convincing. I like the short, snappy sentence style, and I found the unexpected “what if” scenarios entertaining and useful illustrations of the issues addressed. From the chapter called “March and Fight”, possibly because these sections touch on Professor Storr’s practical experience as a soldier, the reasoning settles down to step-by-step argument. “We lack a good, simple, clear understanding of how violence can be used to obtain tactical success; and then how tactical success can be used to obtain operational success”. I agree and would suggest that this is partly because the organised application of violence is very complex; furthermore, I suspect that a good, simple, clear understanding is not a practical proposition because of its complexity. On the other hand, I do agree with Professor Storr’s main contentions in this regard, especially the importance of linking the tactical to the operational to the strategic. I found it instructive that the essence of the argument, far from being a radical analysis, represents more-or-less German Army doctrine as expounded in the 1933-4 Truppenfuhrung and the concepts around “auftragstaktik” (mission command). As the author’s focus is on the British experience in the 20th century, perhaps this needed to be re-formulated.

He makes some very pertinent, if perhaps overly strident, comments against the idea of independent air forces. While I would agree that there is at least an argument to be had about independent, so-called “strategic” bombing, as carried out in the Combined Bomber Offensive in World War 2, I would have preferred a more cautious and evidence-based approach. Although he describes the Battle of Britain, he fails to explain how Britain might have won this battle without an independent air force. In addition, in a rare quotation of other sources, he reproduces part of a table of information on the effect of bombing on German production, as supporting evidence to show the ineffectiveness of bombing, because German tank production in particular increased during the bombing. He omits to refer to supporting text in that source (Adam Tooze “The Wages of Destruction”) that states that it was the bombing that decisively curtailed the continued expansion of production and that this was a major concern for those in charge in Germany.

In conclusion, while this book has some interesting sections, it’s flaws prevent me from recommending it. It looks like a missed opportunity.


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