Published Aerospace Power Journal - Winter 2000

A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (, 79 Garden Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, 2000, 736 pages, $35.00 (cloth).

Although six decades have passed since World War II began, the conflict still fascinates us and generates new books every year. With every new history published, we learn something new, gain a new interpretation, or reinforce conventional wisdom. In A War to Be Won, Williamson Murray—a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense Analysis—and Allan Millett—the General Raymond E. Mason Jr. Professor of Military History at Ohio State University—repeatedly stress that selecting a coherent strategy and sticking to it proved to be the proper course for defeating the evil that was fascism. Three themes dominate their new book. First, the Allies were better at the strategic level of war than at the operational and tactical levels (although they improved during the war), and the course of the strategic war determined the victor. Germany and Japan never achieved a clear understanding of how to fight a strategic war. Second, because both Germany and Japan were evil states that had to be destroyed, the Allies were justified in using all available means to accomplish this end. Finally, because the Western Allies in particular fought a smart strategic war, they laid the foundation for a free, peaceful, and democratic Europe that kept the Soviet Union in check until that nation’s inevitable collapse.

At the outbreak of the war, the Axis powers possessed superb operational and tactical doctrines that allowed them to sweep through vast territories—witness Germany’s destruction of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, and so forth. The Japanese similarly took advantage of the weakened European powers’ position and the puny US defensive stance in the Philippines to rape and pillage their way through the Pacific and Southwest Asia. The weakness of the Axis lay at the strategic level. Germany’s main goal, for instance, was the destruction of an opponent’s armed forces through operational maneuver. This worked fine until Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. When Stalin refused to capitulate as expected and his armies rebounded, Hitler and his generals flailed about in search of a strategy, attempting ever more desperate ventures and urging their soldiers to ever more superhuman feats. Moreover, Hitler seemed to be the sole strategic planner for Germany. Unfortunately for Germany, he never seemed to look much beyond current crises. When Britain and the United States landed forces in North Africa in November 1942, Hitler rushed troops into Tunisia without considering whether he could supply them. He then divided command of those forces between Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Gen Jürgen von Arnim. Conversely, the Allies unified command under Eisenhower and moved forward when supplies caught up with them by the spring of 1943. The Allies had the better strategy and in May 1943 defeated the Axis forces, capturing 275,000 troops—a disaster equal to Stalingrad. Germany’s failure to understand strategy extended well beyond Hitler. Gen Erich von Manstein, arguably Germany’s best operational commander, displayed his strategic acumen when he purchased an estate in East Prussia in October 1944—with the Soviet armies on the border!

Likewise, Japan failed to develop a world-war-winning strategy. The objective of the Japanese was to inflict as much pain on the United States as possible and establish a defensive perimeter quickly, pinning their hopes on American reluctance to incur casualties. Japanese strategists gave little thought to what they would do if the United States sought revenge, except to die gloriously for their emperor.

The Allied nations did not always agree on military matters; Great Britain argued for a Mediterranean campaign, while the United States and Soviet Union clamored for a direct approach in Northwest Europe. More important than the fact that the various Allied nations disagreed is that they agreed on a Germany-first strategy. Caught off guard at the war’s outbreak, each nation that survived the initial offensives rebounded and learned to apply its strengths against Axis weaknesses (what we now call asymmetrical war). The Soviets traded space and manpower for time while they perfected the techniques of operational maneuver. As the war progressed, they improved their intelligence and deception capabilities, time and again surprising the Germans with a major offensive. The Soviets, who seemingly enjoyed an endless supply of bodies to throw at their enemy, never matched the Germans on an equal basis—but with asymmetrical warfare, one doesn’t fight equally.

The Western Allies applied their strengths against their enemies’ weaknesses. Great Britain and the United States produced 380 percent more aircraft, 225 percent more tanks, 270 percent more artillery, and so forth. Of course, these weapons were useless if they could not be brought to bear against the Axis powers. The Allies’ superior strategy bore fruit when they applied their overwhelming resources to win the U-boat war, so men and material could be moved to England; and then the air war, so those forces could invade Fortress Europe; and finally the ground war, which ultimately helped the Soviets destroy the Nazi regime.

Against Japan, the Allies employed superior maneuver and firepower to grind the enemy into submission. Once they gained air superiority, US and British Commonwealth soldiers starved, bombed, or—when they had to—attacked enemy positions. The results were depressingly predictable. The Japanese put up a heroic but inevitably futile defense, sustaining 100 percent casualties in most cases. Although some Japanese leaders were more successful in delaying the Allied advances (capturing Iwo Jima took nearly a month, rather than days, as predicted), their sacrifice was in vain. The bottom line, according to the authors, was that the Allies’ strategy decided the outcome of their operations. It became a question of when—not if—the Allies would win.

Interestingly, the authors include a chapter on the contribution that strategic airpower made to the European war—a difficult task in an operations history. Air warfare is not like surface warfare. Although no maps depict the battles, the drama is no less real at 20,000 feet than at—or below—the surface. Further, because the air war lasted the entire war, any chapter about it disrupts the book’s flow. The authors’ dilemma lies in deciding where to include this chapter. Each section has its pros and cons. In this case, the authors placed their discussion of the air war after the turning point of Stalingrad and North Africa but prior to the cauldrons of the Soviet offensives of 1943 and D day. Although Murray and Millett pre-sent nothing new, they nicely package the efforts of the British and US airmen. Although the air war was brutal, the authors saw it as necessary to destroy an evil regime. They disagree with many bomber advocates that strategic bombing brought Germany to its knees, but they do agree that it contributed significantly to Germany’s defeat. Bombing not only gained air superiority, plunged transportation networks into disorder, and crippled key industries, but also forced Germany to divert over 10,000 antiaircraft guns and half a million troops to defending against the air front. Neither advocates nor opponents of airpower, Millett and Murray provide a balanced view, concluding that “the Combined Bomber Offensive was essential to the defeat of Nazi Germany. It was not elegant, it was not humane, but it was effective.”

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent work suffers when it moves to the Pacific war. Specifically, the authors treat Gen Douglas MacArthur unfairly—not an easy thing to do. True, MacArthur probably panicked on 8 December—and he was paranoid, imperial, a publicity hound, and politically ambitious. Moreover, he often announced victory while his troops were still locked in mortal combat. But one could say the same of many senior Allied leaders—Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Gen George Patton come to mind, for example. Asserting that MacArthur was the least qualified man in the Pacific to command, that he had not led men into battle above brigade level, and that he had not attended professional military schools, the authors ignore the contributions he made to preparedness as Army chief of staff in the 1930s—not to mention his reforms at West Point in the 1920s.

Further, Murray and Millett condemn MacArthur’s wartime operations, claiming that poor generalship marred virtually every campaign. For instance, they insist that the entire 6th Infantry Division had to rescue the 158th Regimental Combat Team (RCT). In another example, a cavalry regiment invaded Los Negros, requiring intervention by the entire 1st Cavalry Division in order to head off “another Little Bighorn.” These are damning indictments indeed—if they were true. But a quick look at other sources shows that these assertions are not quite valid. In the case of the 158th RCT, it indeed could not take its objective alone, as MacArthur originally thought, but it is not true that the 6th Infantry Division had to come to its rescue. And Los Negros? It was a risky operation—some would say audacious. Because MacArthur did not have sufficient landing craft to mount a larger operation, he sent in one regiment with scheduled reinforcements to follow. On the third day of the operation, the Japanese counterattacked, only to be destroyed by cavalry troopers. After that, the 1st Cavalry concentrated on mopping-up exercises—not on preventing another Little Bighorn.

The Central Pacific thrust, headed by the Navy, does not receive the same damning criticism. The authors chastise MacArthur for needless casualties but do not mention whether those suffered by the troops under Navy command were any less or more needless. They highlight the dizzyingly fast offensives in the Central Pacific but do not praise MacArthur in like manner for comparable gains in the New Guinea campaign. They do not comment on how flexible MacArthur was when he faced shortages of resources—both men and materiel—or on how he successfully used air, ground, and naval forces to isolate hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, thus bypassing strong points, outflanking the enemy, and shortening the war by innumerable months. The reader wonders why. No mention is made of whether the offensive through the Central Pacific was right or not. The authors do not discuss whether two separate offensives along two different axes wasted resources. Nor do they highlight the irony that the Navy, looking for a great Mahanian battle in the Central Pacific, found it only during MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. Although many historians have questioned MacArthur’s leadership during World War II, especially during the return to the Philippines, Millett and Murray fail to prove their case to this reader. In fact, MacArthur’s highly respected biographer D. Clayton James has said that MacArthur “brilliantly exploited” his resources in New Guinea.

A War to Be Won also includes four appendices. Because the summary of how nations organize, equip, and employ their forces—found in three of those appendices—provides the foundation of the entire book, the reader would be well served to begin at the end. The fourth appendix, a bibliographic essay consisting mostly of references to official histories, many of which were published decades ago, is less helpful to the casual reader. Moreover, many of the official histories cited are difficult to locate, found only in university libraries—if there—and make for tedious reading. The authors include very few new works. Of more interest to the student of World War II is the chapter-oriented bibliography.

Millett and Murray sum up the entire book in the epilogue, challenging a recent assertion that the Allied cause was as evil as the Axis cause. Place, for example, the bombing of Hiroshima or Dresden against the raping of Nanking or Auschwitz. Which was more evil? The authors counter that these episodes cannot be compared. Japan and Germany almost destroyed civilization with their war, while the millions of people who fought against those fascist regimes stood against evil. In praise of these men and those who gave their all, Millett and Murray quote Thucydides: “Some of them, no doubt, had their faults; . . . they have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives.”

Maj James P. Gates, USAF
Los Angeles AFB, California


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

[ Back Issues | Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor ]