Victor Davis Hanson: In War ... Resolution

Roundup: Historians' Take

... [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....

[For example: Poor Leadership]

Have there ever been lapses in military leadership like the ones that purportedly mar our Iraq effort? The so-called "Revolt of the Generals" against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was nothing compared to the "Revolt of the Admirals" that led to Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson's forced resignation in the midst of the bitter first year of the Korean War. Johnson himself had come to office following the removal (or resignation), and then probable suicide, of Secretary James Forestall, whose last note included a lengthy quotation from Sophocles' Ajax. Johnson's successor, the venerable General George Marshall, lasted less than a year—hounded out by Joseph McCarthy, and an object of furor in the wartime 1952 election that brought in Eisenhower (who did not defend his former superior from McCarthy's slanders). The result was that four different secretaries of defense—Forestall, Johnson, Marshall, and Robert Lovett—served between 1949 and 1951.
Critics of the Iraq war wonder how a workmanlike Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, on whose watch Abu Ghraib occurred, had obtained command of all coalition ground forces in the first place, and later why General George Casey persisted in tactics that were aimed more at downsizing our forces than going after the enemy and fighting a vigorous war of counterinsurgency. But surely these armchair critics can acknowledge that such controversies over personnel pale in comparison to past storms. Lincoln serially fired, ignored, or bypassed mediocrities like Generals Burnside, Halleck, Hooker, McClellan, McDowell, Meade, Pope, and Rosecrans before finding Grant, George Thomas, Sherman, and Philip Sheridan—all of whom at one time or another were under severe criticism and nearly dismissed.
World War II was little better. By all accounts General John C.H. Lee set up an enormous logistical fiefdom in Paris that thrived on perks and privilege while American armies at the front were short on manpower, materials, and fuel. To this day military historians cannot quite fathom how and why Major General Lloyd Fredendall was ever given an entire corps in the North Africa campaign. His uninspired generalship led to the disaster at the Kasserine Pass and his own immediate removal. Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a competent officer, was bewildered by the unexpected Japanese resistance on Okinawa, and unimaginatively plowed head-on through fortified enemy positions—until killed in action on the island, the most senior-ranking officer to die by enemy fire in World War II. The generalship of Mark Clark in Italy was often disastrous.
The story of the U.S. army at war is one of sacking, sidetracking, or ostracizing its highest and best-known commanders in the field—Grant after Shiloh, Douglas MacArthur in Korea, Patton in Sicily, or William Westmoreland in Vietnam—for both good and bad reasons. Iraq and Afghanistan are peculiar in that there have been so few personnel changes, much less a general consensus about perceived military incompetence. In comparison to past conflicts, the wonder is not that a gifted officer like David Petraeus came into real prominence relatively late in the present war, but that his unique talents were recognized quickly enough to allow him the command and latitude to alter the entire tactical approach to the war in Iraq....

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