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The Kasserine Complex

By Robert M. Citino
9/18/2014 • World War II Magazine

THE U.S. ARMY was the 11th army to fight the Germans in World War II and, like the others, it got some rough treatment the first time out. A battle in February 1943 at an obscure hunk of rock in North Africa named Kasserine Pass saw the Germans land a big initial blow, encircling one American force and driving others from one position to the next in complete disorder. Just as all seemed lost, however, the seemingly vanquished rallied. A few men here and there at first, guided by a handful of field-grade officers, showed heart as American defenses gradually coalesced, stiffened, and finally halted the Germans.

All’s well that ends well, in other words. And yet the battle bit deep into the U.S. Army’s psyche, instilling a “Kasserine complex”: an insecurity about the army’s fighting qualities. The Kasserine complex reappeared in September 1943 during the Salerno landing, where a German counterattack almost threw the American force back into the sea, and reared its head in December 1944 in the Ardennes, where the Battle of the Bulge opened with the Germans smashing an entire U.S. infantry division—the unfortunate 106th.

Even the U.S. Army’s eventual victory in the war, which should have killed all doubts, didn’t end its Kasserine complex. The decades after 1945 witnessed the rise of a fascination, even identification, with the army’s former opponent. The Wehrmacht’s combat operations became a kind of gold standard for the U.S. Army, which seemed convinced that the Germans embodied a unique “genius for war,” as one book put it. American officials interrogated hundreds of German officers, many in custody for war crimes, about their battlefield techniques, and commissioned them to write reports on all aspects of warmaking, from “operations of encircled forces” and “Russian combat methods” to “German defense tactics against Russian breakthroughs.”

Equally fascinating to the U.S. Army were German generals’ memoirs. Lost Victories by Erich von Manstein, Panzer Leader by Heinz Guderian, Panzer Battles by Friedrich von Mellenthin, and many more won wide readership. Not only did they seem to embody that German genius, they also spoke to an American officer corps with a new mission: defending Europe against Soviet aggression. After all, who had more experience fighting the Red Army than the Wehrmacht?

The peak of German worship came in the 1980s. Emerging from its post-Vietnam hangover and rededicated to large-scale conventional warfare, the U.S. Army devised a new doctrine, AirLand Battle. Featuring heavy mechanized forces and starring the new M1 Abrams tank, AirLand Battle was nothing less than an attempt to recreate the blitzkrieg. The “new” doctrine swept the field in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm, smashing the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait in four days with minimal casualties. The doctrine had less success in 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. American and Allied forces swiftly overran Iraq with a small, high-tech force. But that operation then fell victim to a vicious insurgency requiring years to suppress—something that would have seemed mighty familiar to Germans who fought in Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union after 1941.

In the end, the Kasserine complex was senseless. The U.S. Army had no reason to copy the Wehrmacht. For all the Germans’ battlefield strengths, including mobility, fighting power, and aggressive leadership, they were deficient in other areas: logistics, administration, military intelligence—the very disciplines at which Americans are expert. The two armies’ first encounter in World War II might not have satisfied the Americans, but they ultimately prevailed. In the long term, the U.S. Army should have left Kasserine where it belonged: to the pages of a history long since closed.

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