A forgotten strategic lesson, the Maginot Line
"You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself." (Sam Levenson, american humorist)
Sometimes, our ancestors made wrong decisions. And without consequent analysis, we are damned to repeat their errors !
The french defeat in 1939 is the consequence of the confusion between
- a political non negotiable, visceral and morally highly respectable objective, keep the peace at any price, and
- a particular strategy, the Maginot Line, wrongly considered as being the only possible option
Today, we know how it ended
Looking towards the future, the french Ligne Maginot experience should push us to question so-called "evidences" and, especially for leaders, to appreciate the quality of the decisions made.
Distinguish objective and strategy
My french grand-father fought in Verdun during World War I and was heavily injured; the family of my mother survived in the cellar while their house was hit by a bomb in 1943; my luxembourgish father was enrôlé de force by the german occupators.
During my early childhood, everything, absolutely everything was done to teach me what my grand-father called the "horror of war". Having been grown up in this atmosphere, I do live the underlying political objective.
But, if we do want absolutely want to meet an objective, are we therefore better prepared to meet it?
Intuitively, we know this is not the case !
Perhaps more than others, I have experienced the psychological limits created by a visceral commitment ! Which explains why I wrote this article ! and cited Sam Levenson
The french decision-makers
Nothing leads us to think that the french leaders of that period were incompetent.
André Maginot, a Doctor of Laws, decorated for his courage during World War I was the Minister of War in charge of the project. André Maginot was a cultivated man and a fierce warrior.
Undersecretary of States in the War Department in 1914, he enlisted voluntarily to the front to fight a war of ambushes at the age of 37. In his war-memories "Carnets de patrouille", "Maginot does not fear to show himself while while killing (p. 114, 115, 152, 160); even more, he glorifies himself for that. Maginot does not autocensure himself because a retrospective culpability feeling." (translated by myself from the website of the CRID 14-18) Andre Maginot knew to fight war without moral second thoughts.
And this warrior André Maginot lobbied for the project "Ligne Maginot" (which incidentally was only called Ligne Maginot after his death in 1932)
His predecessor and successor as Minister of War was Paul Painlevé. Paul Painlevé and André Maginot had a mutual esteem for one another and were objective allies for this project.
And the Professor and Academician Paul Painlevé had set up the mathematical equations which describe the fluid mechanics of the flight of a plane. The Professor Painlevé was also the first passenger to fly with Wilbur et Orville Wright, the aviation pioneers.
It is therefore indisputable that Paul Painlevé knew a lot about planes. Nevertheless, he has been, together with the brave André Maginot, an eminently competent and respectable architect of a failed project which did not take into account the aviation risk.
Let's remember that the General Charles de Gaulle has been the only person to have requested before World War II that France should put in operation armored tanks to counter german forces. It seems that also he did not view at that time the impact of aviation on war-faring. It seems that only the post-World War II version of his book “Vers l'armée de métier“ mentioned the aviation. I mention this not to denigrate the General de Gaulle, but to show to which extent even very great men have difficulty to take a glimpse at the future.
The Maginot Line had an overwhelming political support
Popular wisdom in France agrees to say today that the Maginot Line was an error, that one should have seen that the Germans could bypass these fortifications with their tanks and planes. It is not stated openly, it is implied that the french decision makers were incompetent.
After some initial tactical discussions, this pharaonic project was unanimously approved by the political class. This was not the result of the crazy idea of a few spinners. But looking back from the future, it is “evident” that the Germans could pass 1939 beside, notably in Luxembourg and Belgium, and over it with the aviation.
The “Ligne Maginot” project was passed by show of hands in 1929 at the Assemblée Nationale and with 270 votes against 20 at the french Sénat. There was a large consensus regarding this project.
When creating the Maginot Line, there was an underlying implicit hypothesys that Germany could do nothing but build in front of the Maginot Line another Line, i.e. reinforce the existing german Siegfried Line.
But Hitler was not Daladier. And the objective of Hitler was to attack, not to defend himself ! The hitlerian Germany built tanks and planes and developed a strategy which made unusable, which annihilated the heavy investments made by the French government.
Despite its noble objectives, the Maginot Line has been a resounding strategic failure for France.
Better decisions today ?
Instead of devaluing our ancestors, we should question the quality of our present decisions. Do we have a reason to estimate that we make better decisions than our ancestors ?
This seems doubtful, because we continue to err in important decisions.
In sixty-one years, we have survived 4 melt-downs of nuclear power-plants with radiation release. According to euronuclear.org, (figures of July 2nd 2012), 435 reactors are in operation now. Assuming that the 435 reactors had all been in operation since 1951, we would have 4 meltdowns for 435 reactors * 61 years of operation = 1 meltdown per reactor all 6634 year. Compared to the one meltdown for a million years, initial estimations would be 150 times too optimistic ...
If we then take into account that these reactors came only gradually in operation, we must at least multiply the error factor of 150 by about 3. Thus, for this question and death, empiric experience shows that we were approximatively 450, 500 times too optimistic ...
Nuclear energy has always been presented as a controlled risk.
To put things in perspective, a serious scientific child book of mine, printed in the sixties, showed that by the year 2000 or so, a car would be powered by a small nuclear power-plant. This would permit the car to travel for about 20.000 km without refueling ;)))
Elder persons will remember that in the sixties, il was that stated the probability of a melt-down of a nuclear plant with subsequent radiation release would be about one accident for a million of years.
At the base, the european construction is a strategy to avoid a new war. The Euro is a strategy to solidify the european integration. At least at the present time, the Euro is in contradiction with the initial objectives of the founding fathers of Europe, i.e. maintain peace
The more and more constraining european integration strategy has become a purpose in itself.
As for the Maginot Line, the real objective was lost. In both cases, maintaining peace was the objective.
Unfortunately, this situation is quite common; scientific researches show that the human being, including politicians, are largely irrational with respect to decisions of life and death. (see the recent discoveries of psycho-economics : e.g. the prospect-theory, Black Swans and GroupThink)
What should we do ?
Taking important decisions, maybe of life and death, is never simple.
During the discussions I had after giving out a first version of this article, I felt that a lot of passions began surfacing. Psychologically, this is understandable, we do all bear in ourselves the past of our ancestors. And somewhat, we feel inconsciously responsible for this past which we never lived.
Let's understand that if we stay unable to accept our fears, we can not analyze the facts in a rational way and we increase the odds of catastrophes.
And we should understand that, no more than former generations, we can not dictate how the following generations should administrate their world.
It's their life !
All fairy tales end with the ritual formula: "They were happy and had many children." As a young colleague brilliantly formulated it: there is this idea that once we have solved the next problem, history will stop ;)
And for example, the wish to make any future war unwagable to our children and grand-children, as honorable as it might be, will remain unrealizable and dangerous. A complete european integration could perhaps prevent any external war.
But Black Swans do exist. And the american history tells us that civil war, where brothers fight against brothers, is even worse than an external war
Recent researches should teach us prudence. The link hereafter presents a short summary of research with respect to the irrationality of decisions