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  • Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle
  • Bevin Alexander
Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. By Stephen Biddle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-11645-8. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendix. Notes. Index. Pp. xi, 337. $37.50.

In Military Power, Stephen Biddle, an associate professor at the Army War College, demonstrates a tremendous knowledge of the technical aspects of war. He restricts his analysis to conventional warfare, and excludes guerrilla and nuclear conflict. Biddle deals only with "middle-intensity" wars represented by recent conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and the Israeli-Arab wars, and with "high-intensity" wars represented by conventional wars between the great powers.

Biddle maintains that conventional warfare "will remain the central purpose for the majority of the U.S. military, and it will continue to occur between other parties in other parts of the world." In the war on terror, Biddle holds that—while attacks on terrorists will involve "counterintelligence and police work"—conventional warfare will still occur against states that harbor terrorists.

This is a legitimate argument. But by making middle-intensity warfare the centerpiece of his work, Biddle focuses on an element that, though indispensable, will not be our cardinal military task over the next few years. Our great challenge will be from terrorist cells that deliver sneak attacks against our most vulnerable targets, like office buildings, trains, and other places where defenseless people gather. To combat this threat, we must create small, guerrilla-like elements that can move so fast and so lethally that they can kill terrorists and partisans before they can get away. These forces are now being built, and will work in a network using instantaneous radio, TV, and computer communications to swarm around an enemy target on all sides, isolating it, and destroying it quickly.

Conventional wars against rogue states are going to be rare in the foreseeable future because no rogue state can stand up militarily to the United States, and few will try. American power was demonstrated by the inability of Iraq to restrain U.S. forces in any way in March-April 2003. Furthermore, U.S. precision-guided munitions conveyed by piloted aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have transformed conventional warfare fundamentally. Only the most demented ruler of a renegade state would dare to challenge the U.S., because its air forces can deliver devastating rocket and bomb attacks with pinpoint accuracy on any target anywhere.

Nevertheless, Biddle presents a scholarly and convincing analysis of the conventional warfare that dominated military conflict from World War I through the Korean War, and may occur in the future. He states an important, but often-unrecognized truth that "threat assessments based on the numbers and types of hostile weapons are likely to overestimate real capability for enemies with modern equipment but limited skills [such as the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein] and underestimate militaries with older equipment but high skills [such as the Communists in the Vietnam War]." [End Page 289]

Biddle's greatest contribution is his careful analysis of two great battles of conventional warfare, the great German offensive, Operation Michael, on the Western Front in March and April 1918 in World War I, and Operation Goodwood, the attempt of the British army to break out of Normandy in a massive attack southeast of Caen on 18-21 July 1944.

Biddle shows that the Germans actually cracked a fifty-kilometer hole in the British front in 1918 but could not move their troops fast enough to achieve a decisive breakthrough. In Operation Goodwood, the British stacked up their armor on a constricted two-kilometer front. The resulting traffic jam prevented much of the armor from being employed, and the narrow front allowed the Germans to sweep the entire penetration corridor with enfilading fire from both flanks.

Biddle provides an immense quantity of details and statistics to back up his arguments. Military Power is an excellent source for any reader who wishes to understand the underlying realities of conventional warfare.

Bevin Alexander
Longwood University
Farmville, Virginia


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 289-290
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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