We all live in a new age. Call it the “Age of Facebook.” The good side is that we can stay in touch with our friends, keeping our relationships fresh and vibrant even with people who are thousands of miles away. The bad side? Well, let’s just say that it can be difficult to go on vacation. Sure, you may decide to stay home this summer, but there are plenty of your friends who are traveling, and they make sure to post one photo after another on your wall. Like it or not, those images remind you that there is a big world out there, and that those of us who are staying home in places like Corinth, Texas, may be missing it.
Yep. Call it the story of my life.
Just today, for example, I got no fewer than three posts on my wall that reminded me of the old adage: “Military History Never Sleeps.” Alright, it’s an adage that I’ve just invented, but it is no less true for that.
I have one famous historian friend (name available upon request) who is currently traversing the battlefields of Eastern Europe in World War I. In the course of his travels, he came across a museum model of the Italian tank designated CV-33, at left. The CV stands for “carro veloce” or “fast vehicle.” Oh, did I call it a tank? Sorry. I meant to say, “tankette.” It was a tiny model with a two-man crew, built for speed rather than pounding, and armed only with a machine gun.
Cue laughter! It’s easy to mock, and why not? After all, it was Italian. It proved nearly worthless in World War II, far too light to take the pounding inherent in modern combat. Heck, it even failed against the Ethiopian army in the campaign of 1935–36. The indifferently armed but valiant warriors of Haile Selassie laughed at it, going to ground in the face of its fire, maneuvering around it in nimble fashion, jumping on top of it, and smashing its machine gun barrels with big rocks. Trying to imagine the CV-33 going up against the monstrous tanks of 1944–45 is a nightmare, or perhaps a joke.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the Italians designed and deployed this vehicle for a reason. They were no dumber or smarter than anyone else. In the 1930s, the Italian army was doing what all armies do: planning realistically for combat against its neighbors. And who were those neighbors? Most probably France in the west and Yugoslavia in the east. And where would the fighting have taken place? Almost certainly in the Alps: Italy’s northern terrain boundary. Any realistic plan for future wars, in other words, would have highlighted the infantry, fighting in the mountains and supported at the most by light armor. A vehicle, we might say, something like the CV-33.
Sure, it proved to be a bad choice, like a lot of choices the Italians made. It is important to realize, however, that not all the bad decisions resulted from the fact that the Italians were clowns, or that Mussolini was an idiot. The Italians were not the only army in 1939 equipped with something like the CV-33 tankette. Indeed, everyone had them. Everyone was considering lightning-quick maneuver carried out by lightly armored vehicles. The British army was filled with them, and the German Wehrmacht, the hard-core “Blitzkrieg” army par excellence, went to war with something called the Pzkw. I, a vehicle very akin to the tankette in the photo.
In other words, the image I saw made me realize that it is easy to label some decisions “correct” and others ”incorrect.” It brought home to me the simple fact that the historical actors had good reason for their supposedly absurd decisions. It is easy to sit here in our comfortable studies and cast judgment, but only if we fail to consider the context.
I think I know a lot about World War II. But Facebook teaches me something new every day.
More next week!