Note: No podcast this week. The day job has consumed almost all of my time, so I was unable to put anything together. I’ll be back next week.
While burning the midnight oil on a project, I put on a documentary about the evolution of the battle tank in World War II. It was free on Amazon and it looks like it was done by the Brits, as all of the experts were British. Most of it was archival footage, so maybe it was made by an American company. Most of these things are just bits from prior shows cobbled together with a new narrator. As documentaries go, it was mediocre, but it made noise and it was free, so it was good company while I was working on other things.
One interesting thing about tank evolution that never gets mentioned in America is just how good the Soviets were at making tanks. The Germans are always assumed to have been the great tank builders, followed by the Americans, but it was the Russians who dominated the field in the tank game. Russian tanks were fast, powerful and easy to operate by their crews. Most important, they were reliable in all weather. The Russians assumed they would be fighting in horrible conditions and built a tank for it.
The Germans, in contrast, made one error after another when it came to tank design and tank building. They were obsessed with coming up with the biggest, most powerful tank, rather than making lots of good enough tanks. The result was lots of innovative designs, but most were failures and there was never enough of them. The Panzer IV was a very good tank with a platform that was flexible, but the Germans kept trying to come up with a super tank, rather than make lots of these. That was a costly error.
The American tank, which was used by the British, was not a great tank, but they were cheap and reliable, which meant there were loads of them. It was also a flexible platform for all sorts of other uses. The Sherman tank was about using the two advantages the Americans had over the Germans. One was more industry and the other was more soldiers. The plan was to beat the Germans with volume. While it would take five Sherman tanks to take out a German tank, that was math that worked in favor of the Americans.
This conflict between the perfect and the good enough showed up in many places during the war. The Germans seemed to look at the whole thing as an engineering project. The first step was to accept the restraints and then solve for the variables. The Russian and American view was always to limit the constraints and thereby increase the number of possible right answers. The Germans had much better human capital, but their opponents always had many more choices. They also had numbers, which counts for a lot.
When you apply this conflict between the perfect and the good enough to modern warfare, the American military looks a lot like the Germans. The quest for the perfect fighter jet has led to the F-35 boondoggle. Instead of pouring billions into these white elephants, the money could be used to build swarms of cheap drones, but no one is getting rich from making cheap and useful military gear. The same thing is true with sea power. American warships are technical masterpieces, but probably useless in a real war.
This comparison raises the question that perhaps there is a parallel between the state of human capital in the American elite and the German elite during the war. The German soldiers were the best in the world, but the people further up the line were not the best tacticians. At the upper reaches, the strategist were terrible in all sorts of ways, starting with Hitler, who was laughably inept at running a war. Winning was never an option, but the Germans could have avoided total obliteration if they had better leaders.
The blame for this is always put on Hitler and that’s a good place to start, but the Germans had a brain power problem throughout the planning layer. This is obvious in how they went about making tanks. Instead of going for a tank that was cheap and easy to produce by a civilian workforce, they tried to build tanks that were complex and required specialists to produce. The effects of allied bombing raids were amplified by this strategic blunder in production planning. This is a very basic error in planning and execution.
One possible cause of this was that the middle-aged men who would have been sorting these production and design problems had died during the Great War. The German army tended to “use up” their units, rather than cycle them in and out of lines. That meant that a lot of experience with supply and logistics was lost in the trenches. The British and the Americans rotated units in an out of the lines, thus they came out of the war with a vast number of people with experience in the nuts and bolts of war fighting.
The current ruling class needs the Germans to be seen as the ultimate in super villains, but the truth is the Germans were dumb about a lot of important things. The Russians came up with slopped armor, for example, and the Germans never bothered to steal the idea, even after Kursk. The Germans got their hands on the Churchill tank, but never bothered to learn anything from it. They never learned from the Americans how to use communications to coordinate their artillery and their armor.
In many respects, the story of the tank in the war is a great proxy for the story of human capital and cultural intelligence. The Germans had the best trained military on earth, but they lacked human capital in the strategy and tactics layer. Either the culture was unable to produce it or there was simply not enough smart people to create the necessary smart fraction. That was ultimately why the Germany was wiped from the map. It’s probably why no new culture has arisen from that place on the map either.