In 1914 the German General Staff had a perfect plan for winning a war with France. It was called the Schlieffen plan. It forecast that Germany could mobilize its entire reserve army on the efficient national railway system, move through Belgium and capture Paris in 34 days. Indeed, it specified where the army should be on the way to Paris at each day of the month following mobilization. Schlieffen and his successors on the General Staff assumed that modern wars would be fought in one big battle, winner take all, as in the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The plan was a brilliant example of detailed Teutonic efficiency. In effect, it dismissed the importance of French resistance. The lessons of the Franco-Prussian War left little doubt that the French army was not to be taken seriously. The challenge for Germany was simply the skillful movement of its troops across the countryside for the big battle, which it would surely win.
The Schlieffen plan almost worked. Field Marshal Gen. Helmut Graf von Moltke deviated a bit from it in the closing days or it might have worked. However, Gen. Ferdinand Foch managed to pull together a fighting force that just barely stopped the German advance at the first battle of the Marne. Neither side won that battle, as the Germans had expected. The allies counterattacked and drove the invaders back, but the German army stopped the counterattack. Long years of trench war and bloody, useless battles began.
Early in 1915 Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn (who replaced the disgraced von Moltke) went to German Chancellor Theobald Bethman-Holweg and said the war could not now be won and that Germany should seek terms for peace. The chancellor said that such negotiations would humiliate the kaiser. And so the war went on -- for the next 30 years, really -- and tens of millions died, and the whole system and structure of Europe collapsed, to be revived only at the very end of the 20th century.
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The best laid plans of mice and men . . . And of generals and secretaries of defense. . . No one has ever wanted a long war. Those who start wars assume that they will win quickly and easily. But war has a dynamism of its own that captures those who launch it and drives them where they never wanted to go. As someone has said of the 1939 renewal of the Great War, the half-truth fought the lie.
Very few Americans have noticed the irony and the humiliation of the Bush administration's seeking the help of the United Nations to pull our chestnuts out of the fire in Iraq. A year ago our swaggering, smirking president and our cocksure Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld embraced a unilateralist foreign policy. The United States was the only superpower. It could do whatever it wanted. It did not need the U.N., it did not need NATO, it did not need many of our former allies. We would clean up the mess in Iraq all by ourselves before Saddam Hussein created a mushroom cloud. Now the administration pleads with Kofi Annan to make a deal for us about Iraqi elections -- elections that will surely not produce the democratic Iraq we promised.
The U.N. might not be all that much, but it is the only international organization the world has, which the Bush administration now seems to admit. Among its many defects is the pretense of Franklin Roosevelt that France is a great power, which it was not in 1870 or 1914 or 1939. Yet every American president from 1945 on somehow managed to work with the U.N. to achieve this country's foreign policy goals. Bush, under the influence of the "neocon" intellectuals, decided that such effort was unnecessary. Rumsfeld designed a plan that would ''take out'' Saddam quickly and almost painlessly. Now it turns out that the United States needs the help of the U.N. to extricate us from the quagmire we have created for ourselves. Alas, there is no Marshal von Falkenhayn around to tell the president that it's time to get out.