Vietnam Army General Giap on How To Win, British Armchair General Freedman on How To Lose

Yves here. This book review by John Helmer provides yet another window into Anglo exceptionalism, this one via a twofer. Not only is Sir Lawrence Freedman unwilling to acknowledge the prowess of Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap but he dials in his take on Russia and the state of play in Ukraine by relying solely on Western sources…including himself!

This sort of openly one-sided reading is not only rarely questioned but has become obligatory. No wonder Scott Ritter has often commented how for the past 20 years, Russia studies programs have become “Putin-hating studies”.

By John Helmer who has been the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to have directed his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

General Vo Nguyen Giap (lead image, right) is mentioned in passing in Sir Lawrence Freedman’s (left) brand-new manual from London on how to fight wars. The reason is that the Vietnamese general defeated both the French and the US armies. Noone has done that except the Russian Army, and not in a single general’s term of command, at least not until now, not until the Ukraine.

But Freedman doesn’t say so. Giap was, he says, “the former history teacher and self-taught general” who managed to exploit the French generals’ mistakes to capture the 16,000-man French base at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 and thereby forced the French capitulation to Ho Chi Minh’s government. Giap’s success was, according to Freedman, a close run thing, achieved by “human wave tactics” and “far higher casualties than the French” on the Vietnamese side; also, excessive womanizing, according to Freedman, on the French side.  Giap used women as porters to carry ammunition and weapons through the jungle; Generals Henri Navarre and René Cogny are quoted as describing their woman’s role as “giving herself to those who know how to take her.”

Among the lesser breed generals whom Freedman considers in his manual, none of them is recommended to be the model of command whom he and his Anglo-American and Franco-German, Polish and Canadian colleagues should be following now, least of all the Russian generals. They are the most inferior of the lesser breeds against whom Freedman’s manual has been written, he says, to defeat  – and he judges them to be easy pickings because there is only one of them.

Freedman’s war is “a spectacular example,” he declares,  “of how the delusions and illusions of one individual can be allowed to shape events without any critical challenge. Autocrats who put their cronies into key positions, control the media to crowd out discordant voices, have acquired the arrogance and certainty to trust only their own judgements, avoiding contrary advice, are able to command their subordinates to follow the most foolish orders. When the process of command is understood in this way…as a rigid sequence of order and obedience, bad decisions will be left unchallenged, and the possibilities for…probing alternative courses of action will be lost.”

Is Freedman describing Joseph Biden, Antony Blinken, Victoria Nuland, Boris Johnson, Elizabeth Truss, Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron, Andrzej Duda, Chrystia Freeland, or Vladimir Zelensky? No, not those generals whose losses already on the Ukrainian battlefield are not less than 120,000 men, with  no airforce or navy left, and more than half of every US artillery and rocket piece destroyed. No — Freedman means the loser of the Ukrainian war is Vladimir Putin.

In Freedman’s book, released a few days ago, he uses the term “victory” 91 times; “defeat” just 67 times. The difference is a 36% bias in favour of winning. Freedman’s bias explains why, in the climactic war for Europe now under way, Freedman thinks his generals are winning when they are not. Not to be able to tell the difference is the peculiar feature of his generals’  propaganda. Freedman has fallen for it.

For the first time in the history of western warfare, the losers are writing the history before the capitulation.

Left: Front cover of Freedman’s book displays a propaganda picture of President John Kennedy inspecting a US Army missile battery at the time of the Cuban Crisis October 1962.     Centre: German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel hands the armistice terms to French General Charles Huntziger, June 22, 1940. Right:  CIA helicopter evacuates US Embassy staff in Saigon, April 29, 1975.

Among the old war stories Freedman retells, from Korea, Kosovo, and Kabul to Kiev, there is a black hole on the other side. In Freedman’s comprehension, the enemy never wins by its commanders’ skill – the Anglo-American side loses by its commanders’ mistakes and failures.  He concedes that “the fundamental mistake, common to most military defeats, was to underestimate the enemy, and especially in this case [the Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, March-May 1954] its ability to get its artillery onto the high ground overlooking the base… While the failure to appreciate the risk from the Viet Minh was a shared command failure, it was aggravated by even more serious dysfunctions at the senior [French] level in Saigon and Hanoi.”

To reach his judgement, Freedman has not met and interviewed a single Vietnamese, Chinese, or Frenchman. Instead, he has read and quotes selectively from a score of half-century old books. In assessing the current Ukrainian war, which he acknowledges to be “the most substantial land war fought between modern armies for some time”, Freedman claims to have “revealed some of the practical challenges that commanders in the field face once they are in a serious fight against a competent and determined enemy.”

Freedman’s side, he makes clear, is the superior one in mind — and body, too (with exception for Frenchmen). That is the Ukrainian side, with support from the British and US general staffs. How does he measure this side against the Russian Army whose earlier winning contributions against the US in Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Libya, southern Africa, Serbia and the battle of Pristina Airport, Iran, and Syria, Freedman ignores except by reference to White House archives, British and American military memoirs, and papers from Brookings and RAND.

Instead, Freedman concentrates on the Russian Army in the Chechen and Ukraine wars. For the first of these, Freedman identifies papers by Mark Galeotti, papers from Pentagon-contracted think tanks,  and a battlefield despatch appearing in the New Yorker.  For the principal source for his evidence on how Vladimir Putin developed politically, took command decisions in those wars, and thinks today,  Freedman cites Catherine Belton. From Freedman’s personal acknowledgements, his references, bibliography, and index, it appears he is unaware there has ever been contrary evidence or doubt as to their credibility as sources, let alone an FBI investigation and a British High Court case exposing the fabrications of Belton’s book;  followed by computer analysis of who dictated her book.

Read the Belton archive here.

Summing up how Russia has been ruled since 1991 from these sources, Freedman concludes it has been an illegal, criminal regime. “Instead of a military coup, Russia had a spy coup. Yeltsin turned to the security agencies to help him to get a grip, which culminated in Putin becoming president. With a mindset nurtured in the secret world of the KGB and its progeny, security became the priority, together with a determination to demonstrate how the state could be tough and decisive”.

Freedman appears never to have met, never to have interviewed a Russian military officer.

In a Telegram text posted on October 17, General Sergei Surovikin, now commanding the Ukrainian campaign, said at a meeting with the Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov (left): “I don’t want any longer to sacrifice Russian soldiers in partisan war against hordes of fanatics armed by NATO…”

His understanding of the way they think, and in particular how the Russian General Staff, the Stavka,   and President Putin as one of its members, is, to use Freedman’s own term,  “self-evident” (page 361): “This chapter includes an unavoidably incomplete analysis of the 2022 war, which had yet to conclude as this book went to press. Itg is largely concerned with the origins of the conflict in 2014, as Russia annexed Crimea and stirred up trouble in eastern Ukraine. The links between these events and the later war are self-evident, yet what is striking is how much Putin’s own risk calculus changed from being audacious yet careful in 2014 to becoming reckless in 2022.”

Freedman’s principal source for this is himself: 24 citations. As a primary source for the book, only the New York Times is more often cited – 37 times. After the newspaper and himself, the authorized state reporter Bob Woodward gets 15 cites; the Washington Post, 15; Galeotti again with 8; RAND and the BBC tie with 7 each; followed by NATO’s Bellingcat operation with 4.

For Freedman’s version of the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, he quotes at length from the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) telephone tapes inculpating Russian soldiers; Freedman is unaware of the evidence that the tapes were forged;  he has failed to read a single page of the Dutch court transcripts in the two-year trial in Amsterdam of Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Pulatov. In Freedman’s opinion, “the most informed account of where and how the Russian invasion went wrong is Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, Operation Z: The Death Throes of an Imperial Delusion.” This is a report from a  British defence think tank called the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). In London this entity is also one of Galeotti’s paymasters; it has awarded two of its gold medals for “life time achievement” to Freedman.

For the money, jobs, and patronage connections between Freedman and Bellingcat at Kings College’s war studies faculty, also in London, read this.

For Russian accounts of the years between 2014 and 2022, Freedman has selected his quotes and interpretations from remarks by Konstantin Malofeev,  Sergei Glazyev,  and Igor Girkin (Strelkov). Freedman also reveals he doesn’t understand elementary Russian, and hasn’t thought it necessary to double-check his interpretation of the meaning of what he thinks he has read.

Reporting from an SBU tape of a conversation among Russian officers in the Donbass on July 4, 2014, Freedman quotes: “One told him: ‘You have to convince Pervy [an intriguing nickname for Girkin] that the people have to leave there.  Otherwise, we will lose everything.” The square-bracketed parenthesis was added by Freedman in an attempt at comic sexual disparagement on the pun with the English term pervert, perv for short. Freedman doesn’t know that in Russian the term первый means “first” or in this conversation, “number one”.

With this slip Freedman exposes himself as a first-class (первоклассный) ignoramus on what transpired in the Ukraine between the putsch of February 21, 2014, and the start of the special military operation on February 24, 2022.

His account of the war since then reveals nothing of the command structure in Kiev, nor the role which British and American commanders, whom Freedman knows and tutors, have been playing in preparing the war and directing it today.  But they have assured him that Russian losses far exceed Ukrainian ones. Freedman prints their numbers without reference to the Russian and independent counts. He claims “the most authoritative” source is a website called Oryxspioenkop produced by two Dutchmen in Amsterdam; they are former employees of Bellingcat.   In Dutch “spioen kop” means spy head; the oryx is an antelope with sharp horns. To this obscurity Freedman has added the authority of the British Defence Ministry for the claim he prints that “[as of May 8] Russia had lost one third of the combat capability that had been assembled at the start of the war.” Freedman’s footnote for his claim leaves out this line in the Wikipedia reference: “the known number of Ukrainian military casualties varied widely due to the Ukrainian Army drastically understating its casualties.”

In the end Freedman turns out to be an old-fashioned crusader for whom war fighting is a moral duty to defeat the infidels and relieve them of their treasure.  “The advantages of democratic systems”, he says of his side, “lie not in their ability to avoid bad decisions, either by governments or commanders. Many poor decisions have been recounted here. The advantage lies in their ability to recognize these mistakes, learn and adapt. Closed systems, in which subordinates dare not ask awkward questions…will suffer operationally.”

The closed-system General Giap died in 2013 at 102 years of age.  The democratic-system Freedman is 73, so there is still time for him to recognize his mistakes, learn and adapt. If not another thirty years, then at least the time to learn what Russians mean when they call Freedman pervy s’ kontsa (ПЕРВЫЙ С КОНЦА).

In Russian that still doesn’t refer to Freedman’s sexual orientation. It means that if he thinks he’s first, he’s quite mistaken: he is turning out to be last.

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  1. Zephyrum

    Thank you for this. Somehow the US and Europe have accumulated a critical mass of the incompetent, reinforcing each other, so some sort of fallout was inevitable. May we avoid the radioactive kind. An Irish friend has a phrase for people like Freedman, “Too soon old; too late smart.”

    1. Samuel Conner

      > “Too soon old; too late smart.”

      I have come to the sorrowful opinion that this is characteristic of most of humanity, myself included. By the time one is wise enough to live intelligently, one is almost out of time.

    2. Robert Hahl

      In the same sense that we have racism without racists, we also have meritocracy without merit. Once you have a lofty job title, expertise in that subject matter is presumed forever more.

    3. crantok

      The OECD, IMF, and World Bank (can’t find link now) all say that inequality hurts growth. The hypothesis is that lack of social mobility traps talent born into the bottom 40% of the income distribution. Given the increasing inequality in the West since Thatcher/Reagan, I assume that there is a big chunk of under-50s working class talent missing from our political elites. Probably makes group think and exceptionalism much easier to cultivate.

  2. Stephen

    I read this earlier and thought about sending it to Links!

    Fully agree on Russian Studies. My own Oxford tutor from the 80s for the short course I did on Russia is director of a NATO country funded think tank now. When I have glanced at their output it seems to be 100% propaganda. Guess there is a market for it and a whole career model available for far more people than I imagined by piling into this space. Career incentives clearly matter.

    The article actually made me laugh. The best part was that this former British General is disparaging of French military prowess, which is a classic ill informed British trait.

    I think Jacob Dreizin made a comment that the US Army has never held a contact line of 1200 KM as Russia is doing today. The British Army has not done so either (except possibly in Burma in WW2) and has certainly not fought any form of large scale combined arms warfare since 1945. Nor has it done so much at any point in its history on anything like the scale of the Russian army. So not sure what expertise Freedman really brings to assess the heirs of Zhukov and Kutuzov. Even if he were unbiased. He is clearly an Establishment figure who has written the official history of the Falklands War and was part of the lengthy Iraq Inquiry. These are nice, comfortable career choices if you can get them, I guess.

    1. John Wright

      Note, truth may take a while to surface, if it ever does.

      The August 4, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that was used to ramp up the Vietnam War, was eventually acknowledged by the USA as “bad Naval intelligence and misrepresentations”.


      “In 1995, McNamara met with former People’s Army of Vietnam General Võ Nguyên Giáp to ask what happened on August 4, 1964. “Absolutely nothing”, Giáp replied. Giáp claimed that the attack had been imaginary. In 2005, an internal National Security Agency historical study was declassified; it concluded that Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that the incident of August 4 was based on bad Naval intelligence and misrepresentations of North Vietnamese communications.”

      It took a little while for the NSA study to surface and be declassified, 2005 – 1964 = 41 years…

      1. Stephen

        Yep, the British Iraq Inquiry pretty much concluded that the war was not justified. But that was over a decade after it started so no real consequence. As we are now seeing. The war machine is again in action. Undaunted.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Ukraine will change the “no consequences” part. There are mountains of chips on the board now. Repeated doubling-down.

          Sanctions brought the Western economies all-in on this game. This one’s different. Hence the nuke-talk from the Biden admin.

          Note that the nuke-talk is _not_ coming from the Defense Dept; it’s coming from President Biden, and his admin, especially the State Department. That’s where most of the NeoCons are stationed.

          The western economies are going to feel this one. No debt-papering is going to cover up this crater.

          And, IMHO, it is a good citizen’s job to securely wrap this albatross around the NeoCon’s neck, so they can’t weasel out from under their debacle.

          1. digi_owl

            As in the same people that kept going on about a no fly zone until Pentagon gave them a direct reminder that doing so would pit US vs Russian pilots. And unlike during the Korean war there would be no plausible deniability.

  3. The Rev Kev

    ‘Autocrats who put their cronies into key positions, control the media to crowd out discordant voices, have acquired the arrogance and certainty to trust only their own judgements, avoiding contrary advice, are able to command their subordinates to follow the most foolish orders.’

    Heard recently that when Germany’s Minister for Everything Robert Habeck gets advice from people that do not agree with his worldviews, that he has them checked out to see if they are ‘Putin sympathizers’.

  4. Tom Pfotzer

    Good thing the book came out before the end of this year.

    Might not sell as well next year.


    The West’s keeping-up-appearances public-relations effort reminds me of ducks swimming around in a pond that’s gradually freezing over. Every day the ducks have less space to work with.

    Finally they fly off to find another pond further south.

  5. divadab

    What a disgraceful incompetent! (being charitable here as the alternative is willful lying….). Nice takedown by Helmer – with delusional analysts like this Freedman chap feeding the political leadership it is no wonder the NATO efforts in Ukraine are a shambles. This analysis is as bad as the US military’s “lessons learned” in the defeat by Vietnam – that the war was lost because of peaceniks who were drafted and so the solution was to eliminate the draft and form an “all volunteer military”.

    Of course, Freedman will never be held accountable for this junk, won’t bear the consequences, that’s for the lesser folk – in the UK to suffer massive reduction in quality of life and in Ukraine to suffer massive loss of life!

  6. Hastalavictoria

    I guess with the development of it’s hypersonic missile systems at a fraction of the cost spent by the U.S.A.(which also blind-sided NATO) we should not use adjectives like clever, farsighted, strategic,entrepreneur, to describe Putin who after being in power for 20 odd years must have pushed these “new products”

    Heck if anyone from our side had developed these they would probably be described as the next Steve Jobs by the like of Freeman!

    The ability to use high tech and low tech (Kamikaze Drones etc). has always been a feature of the old CCCP and a general feature of communist armies i.e China,North Korea and Vietnam.

  7. David

    As often with Helmer, I’m not sure what the point of this article is, except presumably a bit of drive-by character assassination. Freedman is not, of course, a former military officer any more than Helmer is, he’s a civilian academic expert on history and strategy, who’s written a number of books including a very good one on how US Intelligence misread the Soviet nuclear programme. His new book (which I haven’t read, by the way) is about the politics of military command since WW2, and as far as I can see, it doesn’t claim to make any military judgements. He may well be wrong about Ukraine, and Helmer may be right: we’ll see.

    I hadn’t realised Helmer was an expert on the wars in Vietnam and I have no idea what his sources are. (As it happens, I know people who met Giap in Hanoi, but I don’t claim any special insight into the NVA.) But in reality, the whole Giap myth has been greatly overblown, and it’s accepted that, especially in the early years, including for Dien Bien Phi, it was Chinese advisors who were really in control. Even then, Giap’s generalship has been severely questioned by historians, notably over the Tet Offensive. But Helmer wants to have his cake and eat it: western forces and generals were rubbish, but anti-colonial victories were still won by military geniuses who would presumably have despatched Rommel and Zhukov in an afternoon. He doesn’t appear to be familiar with the military maxim that wars are won by whoever makes the fewest mistakes.

    In reality, anti-colonial wars were won not on the battlefield, but by exhausting the western country concerned. The classic example of near-failure is Angola, where the Portuguese were actually winning at the time of the 1974 Revolution, largely because the three liberation movements were busy fighting each other. In Algeria, the French actually beat the FLN, and successfully prevented the Army of the Frontiers from entering the country by the construction of the Challe Line. It was the financial and political cost of the war, and De Gaulle’s worries about what it was doing to France, that eventually led to independence, not military genius.

    1. elissa3

      It was the financial and political cost of the war, and De Gaulle’s worries about what it was doing to France, that eventually led to independence, not military genius.

      Yes, spot on. But to that I would add a change in the consciousness of most of the Algerian population (especially in the 1950s) that they were a people who deserved a nation state separate from the colonialist power that considered them part of France. Once such a consciousness/conviction takes hold, barring genocide on a vary large scale, the conclusion is inevitable.

    2. Tom Pfotzer

      My interpretation of the point and the timing of the article is:

      a) self-reinforcing rhetoric often leads to failure, and
      b) people make a living genning up the self-reinforcing rhetoric, and then
      c) the people genning the rhetoric buzz off before consequences happen, leaving
      d) the rest of us to pick up the pieces. Again

      From my vantage point, there’s been a great deal of self-delusion emanating from UK and US re: Ukraine. A tidal wave of it, and it’s swept a lot of innocents along with it.

      This war is already really expensive for the little people, and it’s only just getting started.

      When you say “In reality, anti-colonial wars were won not on the battlefield, but by exhausting the western country concerned”, that is certainly the lesson of View Nam for the U.S.,, and it looks like the Russians paid attention to that lesson. They are exhausting NATO and the EU.

      Do you think the Western string-pullers are equally aware of this potentiality, judging by their moves so far? The West seems like it’s still opening big fronts (added China, then OPEC).

      I’m conflicted about this article only to the degree that it might help the NeoCons change course before their defeat. I want them to be defeated as much and as fast as possible before they ruin what’s left of our economy and planet.

    3. hk

      Spot on about Giap: he was generally a competent enough a commander, but with a major debacle that effectively cost him his job–he was essentially removed from all actual command responsibility after Tet, which was unmitigated military disaster for the communists, although they lucked into political success from it, thanks to US admin’s chronic mendacity and narcissism (lesson for Westerners: don’t lie about your your fake success and your enemies’ imaginary incompetence, or you lose all your credibility when the inevitable unexpected happens, even if you “win.”). But, in the minds of anti-Western Westerners, he was transformed into a “magical Oriental” which is cringe worthy if you are an East Asian yourself. Let’s not create idols, one side or another.

        1. hk

          Yes. The more they lie, the bigger the fall. One doesn’t need to believe that Russia is “thoroughly” winning the war to see that.

    4. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve not read his books, but one feature of military historians is that they are often tempted by lucrative book deals on subjects that sell well but they aren’t really experts on, particularly when they don’t know the language. Its amazing the amount of military historians who have written on particular wars without having the ability to read half the primary sources. I know quite a few Japanese scholars are particularly contemptuous of many of the ‘scholarly’ books produced about the Pacific War due to the very poor understanding of the admittedly very fragmentary and ambiguous Japanese records.

      As for Giap – I think that indeed there was a bit of myth making around him. Its often forgotten, but the ruthlessness of the PAVN with regard to their own soldiers lives was deeply resented by many north Vietnamese at the time, especially as there was, even with the communists, a class element (better off, and well connected Hanoi families rarely saw their sons and daughters go to war – it was usually the rural peasantry who didn’t have much choice). That said, it’s beyond question that he was mostly responsible for the logistical aspects of the war, which was the real secret sauce behind the eventual victory. But he doesn’t seem to have been much of a tactician. The Tet offensive was of course an almighty mess that threw away huge numbers of PAVN soldiers lives, it was only sheer luck that it ended up as a strategic victory.

      1. Soredemos

        Scholarly works in general, or scholarly works made by gaijin specifically? Because frankly I’m inclined to treat the complaints of Japanese upset about Western perceptions of the ‘Pacific War’ with a grain of salt.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The specific complains I’ve heard were from western Japanese experts complaining about ‘generalists’ (or put another way, historians and other scholars) who write about Japan who either don’t understand Japanese, or who know just enough Japanese to misunderstand the primary sources (the latter were memorably labeled ‘the Chrysanthemum Crew’ by Alex Kerr). This particularly applies to histories of 20th Century Japan.

          Of course, being academia, there is always sniping and complaints, and as a non-expert and non-academic, I can’t judge. I’m sure there is also an element of professional jealousy when popular historical writers pen best sellers while the real experts are suffering on junior academic salaries. I can just say that the comments/complains I’ve had have been quite consistent on the point.

    5. TCI-A7S

      Even then, Giap’s generalship has been severely questioned by historians, notably over the Tet Offensive.

      Recalling from my readings when he passed away in 2013, Giap was reported to be opposed to the offensive, at least the decision to hold the cities in the face of US counterattack.
      Didn’t Giap leave the country (for medical treatment) when it was clear the offensive would not be called off?

    6. JTMcPhee

      Angola — wasn’t that the one where, after the Portuguese colonialists were shown the door, different parts of the US machine supported different warring bunches, with the CIA backing one, maybe UNITA, and I forget the others. The Soviets were there too, all part of the Great Game. But I do seem to recall that Cuban troops ended up protecting US corporate mining operations against attacks by UNITA and other US-related factions.

      So heartening to know we have “rough men” out there keeping us safe in our beds.

    7. Yves Smith Post author

      Helmer is particularly sensitive to and calls out when he has time:

      1. Books or major articles by supposed experts making authoritative claims about Russia when a quick scan of their footnotes/sources makes clear they have not read or interviewed a single Russian source

      2. Related to #1, reliance on Catherine Belton.

      Helmer enumerates why Freedman is dead wrong about Russia, so what is your beef? And regards Giap, at least one reader above says efforts to denigrate Giap bases on the Tet Offensive are misplaced; Giap objected to it and apparently fabricated a reason not to be in the country when it started.

    8. jonboinAR

      I like this, actual historical analysis (I mean, I lack the expertise to judge what you’re saying, but it “rings true”), and interesting. This Helmer fellow, OTOH, in this case anyhow, seems to be mostly bagging on the other guy. I appreciate his effort to learn us, as I do many others.

  8. GW

    Great article. I might skim-read Freedman’s book, to sample his judgments of Russian generals from wars of the past, especially the imperial (tsarist) era. But I’m not going to waste coin buying it. I trust Helmer’s judgment that it’s Russophobic trash.

    I’m also going to bookmark Helmer’s website and start reading it regularly. However it’s often inaccessible from my IP.

    On the off chance anyone is interested in tsarist era Russian military history, and wants to avoid reading Western-centric, Russophobic blather penned by people who think like Freedman, check out the works of Alexander Mikaberidze and Dominic Lieven. These two scholars have written some great stuff.

    Concerning Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, I think Richard K. Riehn wrote one of the very best accounts ever. On the Crimean War, IMO, Orlando Figes authored an outstanding, objective, fascinating book, shedding light on the conflict from the Russian perspective. I loved Figes’s account because it seemed refreshingly sympathetic to Russia’s cause. Unfortunately, very recently, Figes came out of the closet as a professional Russia hater and anti-Putin academic troll. Wouldn’t you know…

    1. Stephen

      I am reading Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven. Totally masterful account by an English author who speaks Russian (I think his descent is Baltic Russian) and who has read their archives. Not finished yet but he covers beyond 1812 through to Alexander engineering the coalition that then defeated Napoleon. British audiences tend to focus on Waterloo but forget that Russian armies entered Paris in 1814 and could have done again if Napoleon had extended his 100 Days by winning at Waterloo.

      So many analogies too with the way the Russian army is fighting today with respect to ceding territory, not fighting pitched battles unless needed and in the case of Kutuzov and Barclay avoiding unnecessary Russian casualties.

      Agree about Figes on the Crimean War.

  9. chris angelou

    “He doesn’t appear to be familiar with the military maxim that wars are won by whoever makes the fewest mistakes.”
    Yes, but the point may be excessive overconfidence/arrogance by western military types, and then when they lose, excuse making. We have the greatest and the bestest of everything, until our buts get kicked.

    When I was in high school, we were taught that prior to Tet offensive showed, US military was saying was over. Attacks had been few, and American casualties low. The old light at the end of the tunnel. Tet showed the light was a freight train.

  10. Revenant

    Helmet’s incurious reference to Spioenkop is bizarre. Spionkop (usual spelling) is the famous Boer war battle.

    It is named in the original Dutch after a Yawn Hill, not Spy Hill which would be Spioenkop, allegedly. Spioenkop is however the Afrikaans spelling.

    Spionkop is famous as a disaster on both sides, Boer and British. Having screwed up the fight, we then invented the pyrrhic retreat!. The battle has everything: artillery, minimal trenches, hand to hand combat, field promotions, poor communications, Churchill riding around, general Buller a local hero so inept he camped halfway up the Kop yo find at sunrise the Boer above him…. It is a Victorian Music Hall act of the pointlessness of War!

    1. phiw13

      Helmer is correct though. He talks about a website for a “intelligence analysis” shop in the Netherlands. He links to the Wiki page for that shop

      And btw, “spioen” or “spion” is indeed “spy” in Dutch and Flemish.

  11. Raymond Sim

    ‘Pervy’ – Apparently the gentleman thinks Russian soldiers use English slang? If I hadn’t become accustomed to ‘expert’ opinion on Russia being infantile fantasy I’d think there must be some other explanation.

  12. Tom Stone

    It’s another instabook.
    Comey had one, Strzok had one, Clapper had one…Mueller too.
    I’m sure Durham has a book contract in his future.
    It’s a dignified way of being rewarded for services rendered.
    Lotsa free copies for Libraries…

  13. Anthony G Stegman

    North Viet Nam versus first the French and then the Americans is very different from Ukraine and NATO versus Russia. While North Viet Nam received military aid from Russia as well as China (to a lesser extent) there is scant evidence that Russian and Chinese military advisors were on the ground anywhere in the north or south of Viet Nam. Contrast that to Ukraine where it is most certain that US and British special forces are operating in Ukraine, conducting espionage, assassinations, sabotage, intelligence gathering, and more. The entirety of North Viet Nam was mobilized in the fight against the foreign invaders. It was a Peoples War. Ukraine has not been mobilized to the same extent. The war in Ukraine is not being fought as a war for national survival, but as more of a punishing exercise. Russia wishes to punish Ukraine, but not completely annihilate it, and Ukraine desires to punish Russia and inflict enough pain to drive the invaders out, all the while avoiding all out war which would devastate the country. The generalship skills to accomplish these goals differ significantly from the skills required by the North Viet Nam general staff to drive out first the French and then the Americans.

    1. c_heale

      Not sure about this idea of a punishing exercise. Imo, the war is being fought as a war for existence for Russia, and for the USA/NATO as a war for the control of the world’s energy supplies (in this case the most recent of a series, including Iraq, Syria, etc.)

  14. MILLER

    A bit off topic, but Yves’ linkage of the Helmer article with Ritter’s observation that Russian studies programs in the West have become “Putin-hating studies” has quite a special resonance for me. Like Gilbert Doctorow (he was somewhat before me), who is sometimes linked here, I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. The program was extremely rigorous: a colloquium on each period of Russian history (Medieval, Petrine, Late Imperial, Soviet), taught by a leading Western scholar in each era and based entirely on primary, Russian-language materials and a mix of Russian and Western scholarly monographs, was an obligatory part of the preparation to qualify even to put together dissertation research proposal. A major final essay – not to be in the historical era to be chosen for dissertation research – was required. Thus, I could prepare to write a dissertation on rural unrest during 1905-1907 in a single Russian “black-earth” province, and also make a study of the various surviving versions of the Novgorodian chronicle cycle (14th century and later) and the extant primary documentation in order to understand why the debate in Russian historiography over the popular assembly (“veche”) in Old Russia’s urban centers was and remains so heated. Fluency in Russian and a reading knowledge of two European languages was a natural requirement. The whole curriculum was (and is) backed by one of the larger library collections of Russian primary source and monographic material outside of St. Petersburg and Moscow.

    I defended my diss only in 1992, that is, of course, the year after the collapse of the USSR, and it soon became evident that in the eyes of university administrators, the enemy had been vanquished and Russia and Russian history could now been “demoted.” By 1995, the program as I knew it had been dismantled: the senior, tenured professors went emeritus and were not replaced, and for many years lecturers were brought in from other (non-Russian) parts of the department to teach the survey courses. More recently, I think, a deeply engaged, full-time tenured professor has been appointed, one who has long specialized in the history of Russian culture in the Late Imperial era. But the “demotion” is quite clear from the disappearance of the system of colloquia and the more or less pedestrian course offerings.

    I can’t speak to other university settings, but I have the persistent sense that Michael McFaul and Victoria Nuland are our “premier Russian specialists” because the major educational institutions have, for at least a generation, left the field to these sorts of charlatans.

    1. Raymond Sim

      I had two acquaintances navigating graduate school with BA’s in Russian about that time. Both were ambitious, having excelled at second-tier schools and gone to lengths to spend lots of time in Russia, they were aiming high for graduate school. Their takeaway from the feedback they got was pretty much that they could take their grubby language skills elsewhere.

      One, who wanted to study literature, went back home, and last I knew was head of the tiny Russian department at a minor state school. The last time I spoke to the other, whose interests lay in politics and history, she said “Well f— it. Maybe I’ll just go work for the CIA.” I’m pretty sure she meant it.

    2. hk

      Being able to read old Russian primary sources must have been a daunting task! I’d often heard about how even pre-Revolutionary Russian is a challenge to the modern Russians, with all the language reforms in USSR (and I’ve found Slavic languages to be infamously difficult personally)!

  15. Adam Eran

    Also worth a look: War Comes to Long An by Jeffrey Race. Race learned Vietnamese on the boat over, then interviewed participants (deserters, POWs, villagers, etc.) in Vietnam during “American War” to see what motivated them.

    The Vietnamese all knew that an American victory would mean the creditor oligarchy installed by the French colonists would remain in place. Their motivation by generals or other “leadership” wasn’t that necessary. They knew they (and their children) would be debt peons if they didn’t continue to fight the much-better-armed Americans. … So they didn’t stop.

  16. Linklater

    But Freedman doesn’t say so. Giap was, he says, “the former history teacher and self-taught general” who managed to exploit the French generals’ mistakes to capture the 16,000-man French base at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 and thereby forced the French capitulation to Ho Chi Minh’s government. Giap’s success was, according to Freedman, a close run thing, achieved by “human wave tactics” and “far higher casualties than the French” on the Vietnamese side; also, excessive womanizing, according to Freedman, on the French side. Giap used women as porters to carry ammunition and weapons through the jungle; Generals Henri Navarre and René Cogny are quoted as describing their woman’s role as “giving herself to those who know how to take her.”

    IIRC Alfred W McCoy argued in ‘The Politics of Heroin’ that the tribes-people in the area around Dien Bien Phu (Meo) who grew opium crops at the request of the French officialdom, were dis-satisfied with the remuneration given.
    The Viet Min were able to exploit this quarrel for enlisting the help of the tribes in the effort to locate heavy artillery in the hills overlooking the French positions.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve not heard that version, but its certainly true that the tribal peoples of the uplands, especially the Hmong, were often a wild card in conflicts in the uplands, which in terms of square miles is most of Vietnam/Laos. They never (and still don’t, to a large degree) trust the ethnic Vietnamese, and were probably quite opportunistic when it came to deciding which occupier to support.

  17. Patrick Donnelly

    A few ships sunk with conventional explosives in the Gulf of Mexico and then detonating the millions of tons of clathrates …. Coastal cities everywhere are vilnerable. If attacking a giant, strike hard and quick, else fail! Japan learned that less in WWII.

    If a small tsunami results, USA blames Russia, Iran, China and N Korea. WWIII follows. Or maybe the military do a reverse Smedley Butler in the USA and retreat back to the USA from all their ‘Allies’. They are likely by then to realize what WWIII would mean for the USA.

    Generals? Wars are too important to be left to them. They are afforded resources by those who control the politicians who have nominal control. There is a reason why there are so many General Staff in armed forces: the duds reveal themselves in battle and needs must a replacement is to hand and so on until some competence is shown. It is the Colonels and lesser ranks who lead revolt. Missiles do not depend on courage or perseverence.

    Wars are only fought after the finance, who gets the spoils, and logistics have been designed and made ready, usually secretly for key elements. Takes decades. Fast moving technlogy alters these plans.

    Tactics do not win wars.
    Generals do not win wars.
    Politicians do not win wars.
    Logistics win. When a fancy prat-led regime fights on foreign soil it is always ejected when the ‘insurgents’ have weapons and ammunition. It is the aphorism about eggs and bacon. The pig will always fight when it can and if it sees what is in the future …

    Everyone now knows the USA and NATO lie and attack during ceasefire. No ceasefires? What kind of war will that mean?

    Russia has not fully mobilised. Gathering allies, and a few more enemies, is still underway for a full confrontation that may become WWIII. Avoiding full nuclear exchange is what all this proxy fighting is about, for now. The ‘sides’ have not yet been assembled.

    By selecting the wrong battlefield, NATO has already lost this phase. What happens now is to drain NATO and show the Europeans their illusion is threadbare. This may mean loss of pliable ‘allies’ by NATO.

    Will Turkiye follow Erdogan? SIS has strong drug connections in Turkiye, but can they trust the intel from patriots, who supply what their enablers want? Decades of gathering and manoeuvering decide who runs what, but eventually, Tyrants arise, especially when one nation wages constant war. There are other allies deserting the incompetent bloated gang dedicated to constant wars and revolutions.

    No heroes in uniform needed. No giant brain, knowing all and making no mistake.

    History is not merely written by the victor, it is a confection of lies garnished with obvious trite, to prevent the true facts from being available to others. Note not what they wrote, but what they leave out. Negative space!

    It is still possible that The Joke will end in peace, once the banks have been sorted out. The economic realities for those who control the USA and Europe etc., take precedence over sending NAZIs to slaughter. Assets matter more than lives: everyone is going to die, eventually. Familes can inherit wealth only if it exists.

  18. podcastkid

    Not enough time for this. So I’m wondering how the program knew Belton mispronounced Khodorkovsky’s name. It went over audio selections too??

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