John Mosier and the Great Patriotic War

When Vladimir Putin penned his famous New York Times editorial, he referenced the WWII alliance between the U.S and U.S.S.R, where the two nations worked together to defeat Hitler. In the years since 1945 the Soviet victory over Nazism has become a cornerstone of Russian nationalism. Every year, the Russians celebrate their victory with massive parades. If the Nazis were history's greatest villains then the Russians can rightfully congratulate themselves for defeating them. Or can they? Iconoclastic writer, and amateur military historian John Mosier thinks not. In Mosier's view the Soviet war effort was incompetent, and their victory resulted from a combination of luck, western intervention, and Axis blunders.

Mosier has a long history of attacking the conventional wisdom of military historians on WW II. Prior to writing Death Ride, he wrote The Blitzkrieg Myth which argued that victory and defeat had far more to do with attrition than maneuver, and further that attrition was generally more effective than maneuver as a strategy. If wars are won by destroying the enemy's ability, and or will to fight, then the most obvious way to do that is to kill enemy soldiers and destroy enemy equipment, this method is known as "attrition." The alternative to attrition is maneuver, where one destroys the enemy's ability to fight without physically destroying their forces. Encircling an enemy army, cutting them off from their supply lines, is the archetypal maneuver tactic. Mosier argued that military historians have overestimated the effectiveness of maneuver in WWII, and underestimated the effectiveness of attrition.

Because of his belief in attrition as the most typical, and effective, path to victory, Mosier places a large emphasis on casualty ratios. His emphasis on casualty ratios leads him to take a dim view of the Soviet war effort. From the beginning of 1943 until the end of WWII Axis armies were retreating on the eastern front, this doesn't impress Mosier. Because of the lopsided exchange rate, which continued until the end of the war, Mosier believes that the Axis was destroying the Soviet's military capacity much faster than the Soviets were destroying the Axis's. By this reasoning, the Axis was winning on the eastern front, but lost the war because of their defeat in the west.

Mosier's other claims will almost certainly be met by disagreement from many readers, (particularly Russian ones!). According to Mosier, the Soviet war effort depended on American lend-lease equipment, particularly trucks. The Soviet Union, in his view, simply could not produce the quantity or quality of equipment necessary to keep their armies in the field, making American aid paramount. He also claimed that the costs sustained by the Soviet Union made its collapse inevitable. Most controversially he claimed that the Soviet Union intended to break the Hitler/Stalin pact and attack first.

How to assess such claims? The ghastly casualties sustained by the Soviets indicate mind-numbing military incompetence. That they continued to sustain extraordinarily high losses until the end of the war supports the contention that historians have grossly overrated the effectiveness of the Red Army. The evidence Mosier has marshaled would certainly support the more modest conclusion that the Soviet war effort was inept, but falls short of supporting the more radical conclusion that the war on the eastern front was Hitler's to lose.

In fairness to Mosier, part of the disagreement is definitional. A rough approximation of conventional wisdom holds that since the Soviets inflicted the lion's share of the Axis casualties, and tied down the lion's share of the Axis troops, they deserve the lion's share of the credit for victory. Mosier uses a different measure to assess the contributions of the different allies, due to his own personal views on military strategy. Because the Axis was depleting the Soviet's military capacity much more quickly than the Red Army was depleting Axis military capacity, the Axis was winning on the eastern front. Since the situation in the western theatre was reversed, the Western allies saved the Soviets from defeat, (by Mosier's logic).

Although he makes a good case, he falls short of persuading this author of his book's central claim. Victory is measured not by counting corpses, and equipment destroyed, but by the achievement of political aims. A victory on the battlefield lost at the negotiation table is still a defeat. That the Red Army ended up occupying Berlin indicates a military defeat, especially considering the consequences for the Germans! As to his most controversial claim, this author can form no opinion. Anyone who could confirm that Stalin intended to attack Hitler has taken that secret to the grave, or no such plans existed.

Recent years have witnessed a flurry of books and articles on WWII by David Glantz, by Andrew Roberts, and of course by John Mosier. Mosier defies the conventional wisdom of historians, which gives the Red Army the lion's share of the credit. Mosier sees their acceptance of this view as a posthumous victory for Stalin. For the Russians "the Great Patriotic War" has become a centerpiece of their national identity, and a source of great pride, but the horrific casualties they suffered are still a source of tremendous national grief. This ordeal may even shape the psychology of Vladimir Putin to a degree Americans don't appreciate.

Mosier's book has undoubtedly contributed to this present debate, in his characteristically iconoclastic fashion. Readers will be disappointed by the books almost complete lack of maps, as very few will have a WWII nerd's immediate familiarity with Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and Byelorussian geography. The book can also be a bit dull at times, particularly toward the middle. Despite these stylistic flaws, Mosier offers the reader a novel perspective on the eastern front, one absent up till now. WWII buffs won't be disappointed.