M. V. FRUNZE, GENIUS IN THE ART OF WAR
Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze was a natural genius in the art of war. Therefore, when the military historian writes about such a man, there are constraints on how to assess or judge such a military leader which cannot be applied to the schooled military men who have shown limited or even measured great ability in the pursuit of such a science -- the Science of the Battlefield. While the best or the worst of military theorists are fated by history and the social environs to merely speculate what their art of war theory might invite on the battlefield, M. V. Frunze was unique in the modern world, since his deeds in combat were combined with his most exquisite regard for utilizing both the defensive and offensive postures in inflicting the ultimate damage -- decisive defeat to an enemy.
What should be understood in describing or analyzing this visionary military theorist and his enduring work is that one must think of him like a great clay vessel, a vessel made from the earth and water, a vessel neither false nor synthetic, a vessel of nature. And, from that very spout of the vessel flows his ideas on the essence and conduct of the pursuit of war -- to the students of war or to those others granted the great responsibility to wage war.
In M.V. Frunze’s short time here on this earth (1885-1925), he was able with great tenacity, personal discipline and political fortitude to take on a horrific enemy whose main desire was to crush the October Revolution and create a reactionary Russian regime that would continue to oppress the Russian people economically, socially and culturally. Historical Fate, that is, the dialectical process of waging war within the contradictions of individual military leadership and the actual scientific movement of armies on the battlefield, would allow such a man of military genius like M. V. Frunze to display his skills that had not been seen in tactical maneuvers since the era of Napoleon.
Col. Gen. Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareev’s classical Soviet military history M.V. Frunze Military Theorist provides a detailed account of M.V. Frunze both as man and military theorist. I will not attempt to challenge any of Gareev’s views on the military theorist he may have admired above all military theorists, but shall instead use his work as background providing some historical order to how M. V. Frunze became a military theorist in the first place. According to Gareev, M V. Frunze was first consumed by great literature, not military studies: “In the memoirs about M.V. Frunze, it was pointed out that Pushkin, Lermontov, Koltsov, Chekhov and Gorkiy were his favorite writers… He was fond of reading the works of explorers and travelers, particularly the courageous pioneers of Asia such as Semenov-Tyan-Shanskiy, Przhevalskiy, Potanin…”, and he would expand this self-learning process when he began his studies in the Gymnasium where he would be involved in self-education circles.
There is also a somewhat Romanticized version of M. V. Frunze’s early interest in military history, when the American military historian Walter Darnell Jacobs states in his work Frunze: The Soviet Clausewitz 1885-1925: “Like his elder brother Konstantin, Mikhail was an above-average student. He is reported, in what may be after-the-fact iconizing, to have displayed an early fondness for military games. According to these reports, whenever the young Mikhail was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he invariably replied, 'A general.' Of all the generals of history, Mikhail chose Timur (Tamerlane) as his favorite” -- which I have reservations about. Jacobs gets his source about the Tamerlane ‘choice’ from Sirontinskii. It's fair to say that Col Gen. Gareev's perspective, along with that of Jacobs, gives us some idea of the root of Frunze’s early interest in warfare -- genius in waging war is a zigzag affair that cannot be understood with complete accuracy, since genius is not only rare but immutable.
The great French historian Alexis De Tocqueville presented a potent paradigm for understanding the roots of a man, perhaps even pinpointing his soul: “Step back in time;" he advised, "look closely at the child in the very arms of his mother; see the external world reflected for the first time in the yet unclear mirror of his understanding; study the first examples which strike his eyes. Listen to the first words which arouse with him the slumbering power of thought; watch the first struggles which he has to undergo; only then will you comprehend… the passions which are to rule his life”.
Perhaps for ordinary men such may be the case, but for extraordinary men of overarching genius like M.V. Frunze and his approach to military history and military theory, it is more complicated to comprehend his life and creative work, since his genius was created during a revolutionary mode of economic and socio-political upheaval, even as his ideas and theories on military strategy, including his political views, are part of the dialectics of the definitive laws of history.
Furthermore, the historian Gareev traces M.V. Frunze’s working class roots back to his own working class family, and the unfortunate fate his family would endure, severe poverty, with the premature death of his father during Mikhail's childhood. This family crisis forced Mikhail to become very independent beginning in his youth, while his mother supported not only him but his four other siblings as well in Verniy (now Alma Ata, Russia). The young boy as a national minority would actually make the best of his circumstances with unbending will to learn due to his keen intelligence. M. V. Frunze received a scholarship not only because of his acute intellectual talents in his entrance to the Gymnasium, but also because of the efforts of his mother to work on his behalf with the school authorities on achieving the scholarship. From these first close observations of M.V. Frunze we get a glimmer of what shaped his fortitude as precursor to his subsequent success devising theories of war.
However, what should be kept in mind about understanding M.V. Frunze is how his actual first combat experiences were nurtured in revolutionary agitation when he was just a student. It was at the Gymnasium that the future military leader and military theorist would become conscious of “social sciences and chiefly political economy” as documented in correspondence between Mikhail and his brother, Konstantin. But if M. V. studied such academic materials, he was never far from always reaching out to the study of military history. Gareev reports through his sources that M.V. Frunze was “moved by the stories of veterans about the campaigns of the Russian Amy.”
Eventually his brilliance also manifested in the realm of languages, as he became fluent in English, French and German, which would serve him well when he was accepted into the St. Petersburg Polytechnical Institute, where he would pursue the study of economics. In a poignant letter to his elder brother, Kostya, he wrote: “I have lived my life but to what good?... No, to profoundly understand the laws which govern the course of history… to become a part of the most progressive class of modern society, the working class, to live for its thoughts and hopes, its struggle…” that became a coded pledge for the future military theorist M.V. Frunze.
Other historians have more than adequately documented M. V. Frunze's revolutionary activities of that era; no need to revisit them in deep detail. However, I will state that from 1904 on, when he entered the University in St. Petersburg, he became an active revolutionary student, having joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, and in 1905 he would experience a prison term for the first time. During the Ivanovo-Voznesensk strike, M.V. Frunze was placed in charge of organizing a small but effective workers militia for protecting political meetings of textile workers. He was even able to secure weapons for the militia and give them a sense of professional military discipline and cohesion, which I see as the initial military core leading to his later reputation as a military legend following his mature growth into a profound military thinker.
Beginning in 1907, M.V. Frunze became imprisoned for several years under harsh circumstances, and in 1910, while still in prison, was nearly condemned to death. He went on to develop pulmonary tuberculosis which clearly played a significant role in his subsequent overall decline in health. Later on, he had a dangerous case of chronic ulceration which required surgery but in his youthful naiveté he did not take seriously. Eventually he died at the relatively young age of 40. His genius coupled with his early death is complex and problematic. For all its brilliance, genius is not always compatible with staying healthy.
Nevertheless, while in prison, M. V. Frunze persevered despite harsh, daunting conditions of his incarceration. As fellow prisoner S.A. Sirotinskiy noted about Mikhail, the future Commander of the Red Army read voraciously, books on the campaigns of various world military leaders such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Russian military leaders like Suvorov. This is my second core observation of the closely linked “passions” Tocqueville termed when observing a man’s life, especially a man who will influence a nation’s history, if not world history.
From the year 1915, when M.V. Frunze escaped imprisonment for his continual political agitation against the repressive Czarist regime, his military activities became bound with the Bolshevik struggle to attain full political emancipation for the Russian people. Amid the fighting along the Western Front, M.V. Frunze finally revealed his deeper creativity for training workers to become military personnel at the Yaroslavl District in 1918. And so on the Eastern Front in 1918, M.V. Frunze received command of the 4th Army. He was ordered by the Bolshevik leaders to contain the various military armies surrounding both Moscow and Petrograd.
And here we see the third core observation of M.V. Frunze as military thinker and leader: Along the Turkestan sector of the Western Front, he prevailed against Kolchak, the White General who had been on the offensive towards the Volga with the idea of isolating and entrapping the Red Army, thus assuring the center of Russia was instead cut off from essential military aid and other crucial supplies from the south of Russia, and in the end capturing from the Soviets the grain reserves and military manpower from the Urals as well.
Knowing first hand from intelligence sources as well as his genius for intuitive thought and spontaneous activity, M.V. Frunze demanded precise political indoctrination of his mixture of partisan detachments and Red Guard troops, to bring discipline to the army, but also to deliver a counter-attack or counterstrike, audacious for that time, echoing similar strategy used by Napoleon when he split various enemy armies, defeating one army and then going quickly on the offensive against the other opposing armies.
Keeping Kolchak’s White army in check by stiff defensive operations, M. V. Frunze simultaneously began a surprise offensive attack. With his success of eventually taking the leadership as well as the Kolchak troops by surprise of such an enterprising offensive counter-attack, M.V. Frunze was able to split the Eastern Front into the Eastern and Turkestan Front -- tactics which have the great echo of Napoleon's classic split thrust. Back in 1796, Napoleon’s grand offensive plan was to attack between the two enemy armies, splitting them apart. He could then concentrate against Colli, general of the Sardinian Army, and, if all went well, decisively defeat them before Beaulieu, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War and general of the Austrian army, could join Colli to prevent such a disaster.
Similarly, but with fewer forces than Napoleon had against the allies who wanted to crush the French Revolution, M.V. Frunze after defeating the Kolchak forces went on the offensive in the Turkestan Front by assuring the other White general, Denikin with his own army beyond the Volga would not meet up with the Ural White Cossacks under the command of General Tolstov. In defeating the Denikin forces, it is generally agreed by the majority of military historians that the Russian Civil War came to an end.
With brilliant shrewdness, M.V. Frunze pushed his army along population points, in some ways similar to the means by which the modern Syrian Arab Army has conducted its forces in overtaking key cities formerly held by ISIS forces and the Free Syrian Army. I would state here that M.V. Frunze was a modern military prophet of modern warfare strategy, utilizing strategic surprise at the enemy’s weakest points and making sure of splitting when possible an enemy’s various army forces.
While this essay is not intended to elucidate an entire history of M. V. Frunze as a man and as a military theorist, I have attempted in a relatively short space to come to some closely observed technical “passions” -- again applying the term Tocqueville used in understand the whole picture of a man’s life. This is my final and fourth observation of M.V. Frunze’s military theory -- his idea of Unified Military Doctrine. What one should understand from the beginning of the concept is that in actuality, in many countries and nation-states the term “military doctrine" and “military theory” can be one and the same thing. From my point of view a military doctrine only remains a theory and nothing else if not put into practice.
For instance, concerning the United States of America's current political leadership, where conformity and arrogance is the order of the day regarding their military achievements, it is enough to review or revamp military theory or regulations without taking a deeper view of forming a centralized and unified military doctrine which encompasses not only all the military armed forces but that of the very state instructions as well.
Although there were formidable debates concerning such a “Unified Military Doctrine” as proposed by the eventual Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, M.V. Frunze, according to Gareev, what the profound essence of the proposed doctrine was the following:
Frunze approached the elaboration of a unified military doctrine as a complex process of formulating military-political and military-
theoretical ideas which reflected the state’s tasks in the area of nation defense. He proceed from the point of view… from existing objective conditions… from the state’s social system, its domestic and foreign policy, the ideology of the ruling class… the development level of science and technology, including military science and military art.
In Gareev's assessment, we see what was revolutionary in military thought since the time of Napoleon, and even going back to the idea of state and army as envisioned by Alexander the Great as one unified cultural force, was that Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze was embarking upon a modern theory of unifying military though and practice with the will and mechanics of the state. M.V. Frunze knew deep down in his military theoretical thinking, there would be endless war between capitalist nations and their armies against that of Soviet Russia and any other county that sought a Socialist state among its people.
Only a few military historians in the United States and other countries in the West have shown an interest in M.V. Frunze’s theory of “Unified Military Doctrine.” In his Master's thesis entitled “MIKHAIL FRUNZE AND THE UNIFIED MILITARY DOCTRINE,” Thomas Michael Lafleur, Major, United States Army, wrote what I observed through perusing his work as merely a routine conventionally academic view of the proposed Soviet military doctrine based on Marxist-Leninist theory. However, I encountered one passage of his which does reveal an American military officer’s insight on what M.V Frunze was advocating:
The fifth thesis was that new tactics and strategy would develop with the coming to power of the working class. The nature of these tactics would be based on Marxist ideology, but the specific tactics had yet to be determined, and the tactical direction that Frunze wanted the Red Army to take would not be clear in Frunze’s mind for another eight months. This thesis emphasized Engels’ first theme and his third theme: that the proletariat has its own unique way of war and that all of the power in a State is subordinate to the political.
The insight contained in this very vital statement by the American Major Thomas Michael Lafleur was that the core value of the fourteen-thesis theory of the Unified Military Doctrine as created by M.V. Frunze was based on his experience as first a revolutionary agitator, then as a serious student of military history, and then as a military leader whose actual military experience in the field brought him to a worldly understanding of military thought not seen since Baron Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Where M.V. Frunze transcends Clausewitz’s theory of total war and war as politics by another means, is how the Soviet theorist lays the foundation for future modern warfare based on realpolitik grounded in a people’s war marked by the offensive attack and the audacity of combining military force with a revolutionary state which will go to war only for the preservation of its people, and nothing else.
All wars between progressive and socialist nations and their opposing bourgeois, fascist and theocratic states are not only unavoidable, but inevitable in the modern world.
If the Italian communist and historian Domenico Losurdo could write in his work War and Revolution: “Demonization of the historical experience that began with the Bolshevik Revolution prevents us from understanding contemporary democracy,” then I would say such a demonization also prevents us from understanding the deeper aspects of Soviet military thought as created by the genius of Michael Vasilyevich, who gave the world a unique and historical modern interpretation of military thought that should still be studied and used in any progressive or revolutionary military school. Indeed, Alexander the Great is quoted as saying, "I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion." In my view, M.V. Frunze was a lion leading other men who were also lions in their own way.