February 15, 2008


In War: Resolution (Victor Davis Hanson, Winter 2007, Claremont Review of Books)

[W]hat is missing from the national debate over the "worst" war in our history is any appreciation of past American military errors—political, strategic, technological, intelligence, tactical—that nearly cost us victory in far more important conflicts. Nor do we accept the savage irony of war that only through errors, tragic though they may be, do successful armies adjust in time to discover winning strategies, tactics, and generals.

Preoccupied with the daily news from Baghdad, we seem to think our generation is unique in experiencing the heartbreak of an error-plagued war. We forget that victory in every war goes to the side that commits fewer mistakes—and learns more from them in less time—not to the side that makes no mistakes. A perfect military in a flawless war never existed—though after Grenada and the air war over the Balkans we apparently thought otherwise. Rather than sink into unending recrimination over Iraq, we should reflect about comparable blunders in America's past wars and how they were corrected. Without such historical knowledge we are condemned to remain shrill captives of the present.

Take one of this war's most controversial issues, intelligence failures. Supposedly we went to war in 2003 with little accurate information about either Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or its endemic religious factionalism. As a result the U.S. government lost credibility and goodwill at home and abroad, and is now plagued by enormous political and military problems in trying to stabilize a constitutional government in Iraq. Have lapses of this magnitude been unusual in past wars?

Not at all, in either a strategic or tactical context. American intelligence officers missed the almost self-evident Pearl Harbor attack, as an entire Japanese carrier group steamed unnoticed to within a few hundred miles of Hawaii. After fighting for four long years we were completely surprised by the Soviets' efforts to absorb Eastern Europe. Almost no one had a clue about the Communist invasion of South Korea in June 1950—or the subsequent Chinese entrance en masse into North Korea months later. Neither the CIA nor the State Department had much inkling that Saddam Hussein would gobble up Kuwait in August 1990.

We should remember that long before the WMD controversy, the triggers for American wars have usually been odd affairs, characterized by poor intelligence gathering and inept diplomacy—and thus endless controversy and conspiracy mongering: for example, the so-called Thornton affair that started the Mexican War; the defense and shelling of Fort Sumter; the cry of "Remember the Maine!" that heralded the Spanish-American War; the murky circumstances surrounding the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania that turned public opinion against the Kaiser; the Pearl Harbor debacle; an offhand remark in January 1950 by Secretary of State Dean Acheson that South Korea was outside our "defense perimeter"; the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution; and an American diplomat's apparent signal of unconcern to Saddam Hussein immediately before he invaded Kuwait.

At the battlefield level, America's intelligence failures are even more shocking. On April 6, 1862, Union forces at Shiloh allowed a large, noisy Confederate army under General Albert Sidney Johnston to approach unnoticed (by both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman) to within a few thousand yards of their front with disastrous results. Grant—still clueless as to the forces arrayed against him—compounded his error by sending an ambiguous message for reinforcements to General Lew Wallace, resulting in a critical delay of aid for several hours. Hundreds of Union soldiers died in the meantime. Following the battle Union generals knew even less concerning the whereabouts of the retreating, defeated Confederate forces and thus allowed them to escape in safety. The hard-won Union victory became an object of blame-gaming for the remainder of the 19th century.

Perhaps the two costliest intelligence lapses of World War II preceded the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa—both towards the end of the war, after radical improvements in intelligence methods and technology. Americans had no idea of the scope, timing, or aims of the massive German surprise attack through the Ardennes in December 1944, despite the battle-tested acumen of our two most respected generals, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, and British and American intercepts of Wehrmacht messages. At Okinawa, American intelligence officers grievously underestimated the size, position, and nature of the Japanese deployment, and thus vastly overestimated the efficacy of their own pre-invasion bombing attacks. Yet Okinawa was not our first experience with island-hopping. It unfolded as the last invasion assault in the Pacific theater of operations—supposedly after the collective wisdom gleaned from Guadalcanal, the Marianas, Peleilu, the Philippines, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima had been well digested. Yet this late in the war, over 140,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or missing in the Ardennes and on Okinawa.

If we'd just messed Iraq up as badly as we did post-WWII Germany, half the country would be ruled by Ba'athists with our approval.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2008 7:04 AM

To answer any critics, there has been no Savo Sound in this war.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 15, 2008 9:22 AM

"We forget that victory in every war goes to the side that commits fewer mistakes"

Even this isn't true. Wars are won by the side that is able to work through its mistakes. That's why most are won by the side with the biggest GDP: it can afford more mistakes.

Ronald Lewin wrote a book titled "Hitler's Mistakes." His publisher asked him, "If Hitler made all these mistakes like you say, why was it so hard for the Allies to defeat him?"

Lewin replied, "I couldn't fit the Allies' mistakes in one book."

I'd be willing to bet that most wars are won by the side that makes more mistakes.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at February 15, 2008 12:01 PM

The only way to avoid committing mistakes is to do *nothing*, which is the only surer way to be defeated once a war starts.

Posted by: Chris B at February 15, 2008 12:35 PM

Hind sight critics are generally those willing to reveal they seldom had the experience of making timely critical decisions in fluid, complex situations they had the responsiblity to resolve.
Basically it's just a lack of understanding.

Hanson's commentary, though late in the game, makes some points sorely needed to be realized, should they ever reach beyond the choir.

Posted by: Genecis at February 15, 2008 1:55 PM

Our Iraq mistakes may turn out to be not mistakes at all in that the Shia death squads and Sunni market bombing and beheadings that resulted from us not stabilizing the place quicker, may forever remind the tyrpical everyday Akmed just how bad things can be when you are not on our side.

Posted by: Perry at February 15, 2008 3:17 PM

The idea that it is reasonable to expect war to be tidy could only be held by a naif, fool or demagogue.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 15, 2008 3:42 PM

I am still waiting to see what all these so-called "mistakes" may have been. The major regional Middle Eastern power was taken off the board at trivial cost, the fissures within the spiritual jailhouse maximized, and the civilizational incompetence of the jailhouse conclusively demonstrated.

What do we think out objectives should have been? Analyze deeds, not words.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 15, 2008 4:18 PM