Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.


No, “Outlawing War” Did Not Work

Recently, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro (both law professors at Yale University) in the “Gray Matter” section of the Sunday Review. Entitled, “Outlawing War? It Actually Worked,” this essay argues that the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) proved far more effective in changing international behavior than most of its critics would allow. For those of you who do not remember your 20th-century European diplomatic history, the pact required signatories to renounce war “as an instrument of national policy” and to resolve all differences through “pacific means.” In other words, it more or less outlawed war. Hathaway and Shapiro concede that the Kellogg-Briand Pact appears to have done little to prevent World War II, but they argue that in the post-1945 era, the behavior of states changed dramatically, largely because countries could no longer establish their right to rule a territory “by brute strength” alone. The authors proceed to get all political science-y on the reader by pointing out the following:

We found that from 1816 until the Kellogg-Briand Pact was first signed in 1928, there was, on average, approximately one territorial conquest every 10 months. Put another way, the average state during this period had a 1.33 percent chance of being the victim of conquest in any given year. . . . The average amount of territory seized between 1816 and 1928 was 114,088 square miles per year. Since World War II, conquest has almost come to a full stop. The average number of conquests per year fell drastically — to 0.26 per year, or one every four years. The average size of the territory taken declined to a mere 5,772 square miles per year. And the likelihood that any individual state would suffer a conquest in an average year plummeted — from 1.33 percent to 0.17 percent, or once or twice a millennium.

Before it goes any further, this blog wishes to signal that it has nothing but the greatest respect for those who study politics. Indeed, any field whose greats include people like Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville must have something going for it (although One Thing after Another admits who to a special partiality for Discourses on Titus Livy, Democracy in America, and The Old Regime and the French Revolution). But One Thing after Another believes there are serious problems with the argument presented in this article by Hathaway and Shapiro

For one thing, this argument is insufficiently nuanced. Yes, the Kellogg-Briand Pact played a role in delegitimizing conquest, but the authors have stripped away the context within which the pact could play such a role. Matters could have turned out very differently; in other words, the influence of the agreement depended a great deal on contingency. For example, had the Axis powers won World War II, you can bet that we would never have heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact again. But the Allies won and used the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prosecute Axis leaders for “crimes against peace” during the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials. Allied victory, of course, was succeeded by a bipolar world and the emergence of the Cold War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had an interest in avoiding a major conflict shortly after World War II, and this instinct was reinforced by the development of nuclear weapons. This situation, of course, meant that the superpowers had an interest in limiting armed conflicts (which contributed, among other things, to the era of détente), and this interest made wars of conquest much less likely. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the erection of a liberal world order whose aspirations corresponded with those that informed the men who signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But as we have seen in the recent past, that order is a fragile one whose staying power depends on much more than the pact. There are those in 2017 who, like many in the 1930s, refrain from conquest not because of their respect for principles or international law but because conditions are not yet propitious. If the seizure of the Crimea is a harbinger of things to come, the world will witness much more violence and larger chunks of territory will change hands with greater frequency. To summarize, then, outlawing war alone did not make armed conflicts less likely—a host of factors, a number of which had nothing to do with the pact—made this state of affairs possible.

Granted, Hathaway and Shapiro do “not deny the importance of many other causes that have been offered for the end of conquest and decline of war, such as the advent of nuclear weapons and the considerable rise in free trade.” But, they go on to claim that the pact has created an atmosphere more receptive to the idea that “might no longer makes right.” We see this spirit at work, the authors continue, when statesmen use nuclear weapons to deter aggression or impose sanctions on other states. One Thing after Another, however, is not entirely sure how the deterrence of nuclear weapons and sanctions embody the spirit of Kellogg-Briand; these are instruments of force designed to compel our opponents to bend to our will. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was about employing “pacific means” to settle disputes. And that point brings us back to the question of just what has played the preponderant role in keeping the peace for most of the twentieth century—law (in the form of the Kellogg-Briand Pact) or the balance of international power.

Deemphasizing crucial context is one reason that Hathaway and Shapiro’s essay does not fulfill the promise of its title. Another reason is that the authors lose sight of what the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to do and why wars are fought. The main thrust of the piece’s argument is that the pact reduced the prevalence of fighting by making wars of conquest less frequent; since any power contemplating such a war knew it would enjoy an uncertain title to captured lands, so the argument goes, it often thought twice about engaging in aggressive behavior. Fair enough, but such an argument is a far cry from what the title of the essay and its opening paragraphs suggest. Outlawing armed conflict did not actually lead to its extinction which is what the signatories to the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to achieve. Rather, it appears, placing war beyond the pale merely added a disincentive to a potential aggressor’s calculations—an altogether different and somewhat smaller achievement. The reason that discouraging wars of conquest did not end all wars is because, contrary to the authors’ assertions, many wars are not clearly about conquest at all. War is a tool by which to achieve a wide variety of political objectives of which conquest is only one among many. Think of the most disruptive and destabilizing conflicts in our own time—Syria and Afghanistan. Neither can strictly be classified as a war of conquest. Think of the major wars associated with decolonization as well (Indonesia, Indochina, Algeria, and so on). It is also hard to argue these were wars of conquest.

Hathaway and Shapiro are law professors, and one can see why they would be inclined to stress the significance of diplomatic agreements (by the way, the Yale Law School Library supports the wonderful Avalon Project, a website with a very large online collection of primary-source documents revolving around law and diplomacy). People who subscribe to a particular discipline often see what that field of study teaches them to see; psychologists, historians, and physicists are no better than law professors in that respect. Law, of course, is only one factor among many at work in international relations. For that reason, we should not oversell its role to the point where it appears to be a prime mover in diplomatic affairs—lest we forget the utility of force, trade, and the other influences that make the world go round.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

How the Western Allies Won World War II

Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Phillips Payson O’Brien opens How the War was Won with a provocative statement: “There were no decisive battles in World War II” (2). What he means by this assertion is that World War II was not won at so-called “decisive” battles like El Alamein, Kursk, or Midway. Rather, what really proved decisive was the attrition waged on what he terms “super-battlefields” (e.g. the Atlantic Ocean or the skies of Germany) in which each side employed primarily air and sea power to destroy enemy equipment in pre-production, production, and deployment (5). This book is not a history of World War II; it looks at one very important aspect of the war, the production and destruction of military equipment, and draws significant conclusions regarding strategy and the way the Western Allies won the war. As the subtitle suggests, massive investments in air and sea power yielded enormous dividends and played a huge role in destroying the Axis powers. As O’Brien puts it,

The struggle throughout the air-sea super-battlefield determined the outcome of every land battle in the war. In the first case it determined the vast majority of World War II munitions production. It then, limited, in some cases most severely, the types of each weapon that could be built, and just as important, the amount of built equipment that was able to reach the fighting area. Finally, when it came to the land battles, the ability to control or deny control of the air space over the fighting almost always proved decisive (6).

Before the war, although most powers had only the haziest notion of how they would use air and sea power, they instinctively understood that that they had to manufacture large numbers of aircraft and naval vessels. In the United States, this commitment to air and sea power was also driven by interservice rivalry. The machinations of Admiral Ernest King, commander-in-chief of the US fleet and chief of naval operations, proved decisive in obtaining an enormous amount of material for his branch of the service (and not only making a mockery of the so-called “Germany first” strategy but also ensuring that the US Navy would be able to mount its own drive in the central Pacific independent of the army’s offensive in the southern Pacific). By 1944, the US Navy’s air arm was slightly larger than the Luftwaffe and only smaller than the RAF and the USAAF. In any event, among all the belligerents, according to O’Brien, the proportion of productive capacity devoted particularly to air forces is staggering. For example, after surveying the statistics, he judges that in July 1944, the month that German munitions production reached its zenith, well over half of armaments and ammunition output went to the Luftwaffe and over two-thirds was devoured by the German air force and navy combined (27). If anything, the proportions for Great Britain, the United States, and Japan were even higher. Indeed, the United States devoted so much industrial might to air and sea forces that these commitments were a primary consideration in limiting the army to 100 divisions.

This investment in air and sea power, O’Brien argues, was warranted. For sure, enemy weaponry could be wrecked on the battlefield. However, aircraft and naval vessels could deny to the enemy the resources necessary to build this weaponry; wreck the facilities where this weaponry was constructed; and smash this weaponry as it traveled to the battlefield. This is exactly what the British and the Americans sought to do with increasing success as the war dragged on. Germany and Japan could have coped with their battlefield losses of tanks, artillery, and so on. To cite just one statistic (the book is full of startling figures), between July and August 1943, that is, during the Battle of Kursk, widely considered an especially destructive battle, the Germans lost 1,331 armored fighting vehicles on the entire Eastern Front; such a figure only represented about 11% of such vehicles produced by Germany that year. Far more serious were the losses of weaponry (particularly aircraft) and fighting strength lost off the traditional battlefield

O’Brien focuses on three strategic initiatives: the Battle of the Atlantic, the Anglo-American Combined Bombing Offensive (CBO) against Germany, and the US Navy’s drive against the Mariana archipelago. Each required an enormous amount of equipment, and each, he argues, proved decisive. As O’Brien puts it, “any discussion of the air-sea victory of the United States and the United Kingdom must start with control of the movement of supplies and raw materials across the Atlantic Ocean” (232). The stakes were high for both sides. While the Arsenal of Democracy was not vulnerable to German bombing (unlike German industry which was susceptible to Allied air attack), its products were exposed to German assault as they passed across the Atlantic to Britain. If the Germans could have prevented enough supplies from crossing the ocean, they could have prevented the build up of Anglo-American force in Britain, turned on the Soviets (whose productive power was inferior), and won the war in Europe. As O’Brien argues (and this type of argument appears throughout the book), even if the Germans had no hope of winning the Battle of the Atlantic, their substantial investment in U-boats made a great deal of sense. First, it allowed them to destroy an enormous amount of American equipment before it ever reached Europe. O’Brien calculates that by sinking over 20% of the bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum) that the United States attempted to ship to Britain in 1942, the Germany navy destroyed more Allied aircraft in pre-production than the Luftwaffe shot down in combat between 1942 and 1943. At the same time, U-boats also destroyed more American army equipment in transit than the Germany army did on the battlefield in 1942. Second, the U-boat offensive compelled the British and the Americans to spend billions of dollars on merchants and escort vessels—money could have been devoted to something else. Third, it led to the diversion of Allied strategic air power (in 1943, half of the bombs dropped by American strategic forces and one-fifth of those dropped by the British were placed on German submarine targets). In this battle of material and technology, however, the Allies had the advantage. As O’Brien argues, “Victory for the Allies was made possible by the British pushing the boundaries of modern warfare fully. It required technological superiority, for example with radar and sonar, superb operational analysis of the science of convoy speed and size, great shipbuilding resources, excellent training, and, eventually, a significant air component” (230). Allied victory on “superbattlefield” of the Atlantic “marked the end of any possibility for Germany to win the war” (230).

Many readers may not be particularly surprised by O’Brien’s narrative of the Battle of the Atlantic (although his quantification of the Allied effort certainly does put matters in perspective), but his attempt to rehabilitate the CBO will probably prove much more controversial. A number of prominent historians have characterized the Allied strategic bombing of Germany as ineffective and immoral (for an especially prominent example, see the review of Richard Overy’s Bombing War). O’Brien starts from the premise that the RAF’s strategy of laying entire German cities to waste was unproductive but that the USAAF’s targeting of key industries exerted a much greater impact (other scholars, and Overy again is a good example, do not see much of a distinction between the two air forces in practice). O’Brien concedes that the Allied strategic bombing campaign of 1943 was a failure. However, he argues that as the air forces of the Western Allies adjustrf (particularly the United States) and brought more force to bear on Germany, they eventually made an enormous contribution in 1944 and 1945 to the collapse of Nazi military power.

O’Brien argues that American bombing, which targeted aircraft manufacturing (particularly fighters), hydrogenation plans, ball-bearing production, and eventually transportation networks, had far-reaching consequences for Germany. Such bombing destroyed a number of aircraft before they ever became operational and compelled the Germans to disperse their aircraft industry, leading to greater inefficiency and lower quality manufacturing. The bombings also effected momentous changes to the allocation of resources (that is, when resources could still be allocated, for the bombing of the transportation network eventually brought the German economy to a standstill when factories could no longer obtain coal or raw materials). A large amount of German labor was shifted from manufacturing (especially in the aircraft industry) to the repair of various facilities. The Germans also had to produce enormous quantities of concrete to construct flak towers, shelters, and other structures necessitated by the bombing. The V-2 program, the most expensive weapons program the Germans developed during the war, was accelerated in response to the bombing as well. Fighter aircraft, as well as flak and anti-aircraft ammunition, became top priorities (the production of bombers virtually ceased by 1943). Finally, the Nazi regime had to redistribute existing forces (aircraft and flak) from the Eastern and the Mediterranean fronts to Germany. That meant that German ground forces increasingly had to operate without any air cover whatsoever. All of these changes availed the Germans nothing. The Luftwaffe entered a death spiral. Allied fighters escorting bombers over Germany shot down large numbers of enemy fighters. The pressure to produce new pilots (along with the decreasing supply of high-octane fuel) meant that the Luftwaffe spent less time on training than ever before. Badly prepared pilots flying poorly manufactured aircraft were not only shot down in ever larger numbers but also experienced huge non-operational losses. Meanwhile, the tactical and operational mobility of the German army was reduced (due to lack of fuel and the absence of air cover), and Germany suffered huge losses of armored fighting vehicles to Allied aircraft. O’Brien calculates that in 1943, the Germans lost a greater proportion of their military equipment in the air war over Germany than on the Eastern Front (314). Of course, in 1944, matters only grew worse for the Germans due to Allied strategic, operational, and tactical air superiority. Strategic bombing really began to undermine the German economy in the second half of the year. At the same time, the Germans lost more equipment during the Normandy campaign (at the fighting at the Falaise pocket) than they did during Operation Bagration in Russia (which was roughly concurrent), largely because Anglo-American bombers and fighters ruled the skies over France. O’Brien, then, produces much evidence to support the view that the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign was truly the equivalent of a second front and then some.

The story is somewhat similar when O’Brien describes the US Navy’s offensive through the central Pacific toward the Mariana islands and the demise of Japanese fighting power. O’Brien rates Japanese industrial might rather highly; according to his figures, Japan produced about as much weaponry as the Soviet Union did in 1942 and 1943 (fewer tanks but many more ships). King might have lied to get the United States to devote more production to the Pacific theater, but it is clear that Japan was a very significant threat that made it very difficult for the Americans to hew to a “Germany first” strategy. Indeed, the United States eventually committed enormous amounts of air and sea power to the Pacific.  The United States did manage, however, to deal a number of heavy blows to the Japanese even before American industry hit its stride and covered the sea with ships and the sky with planes. The Battle of Midway was a great blow to the Japanese because they lost four aircraft carriers. O’Brien, argues, though, that the fight at Guadalcanal did more to undermine Japanese power because of the heavy losses inflicted on the navy’s air arm. This grinding, attritional battle led to the combat deaths of many experienced pilots who were compelled to operate from distant bases that were themselves at the end of a very long logistical tether. Non-operational deaths were also extremely high. Although the Japanese proved extremely good at replacing aircraft (and then some) up until the second half of 1944, the loss of pilots proved catastrophic. The pressure to produce pilots as well as shortages of high octane fuel (due to the success of American submarines in sinking Japanese tankers who brought oil from the Dutch East Indies) led to reduced training and poor pilot performance. American superiority in the air supported what became a huge superiority at sea. O’Brien points out that the American naval assets devoted to the capture of the Marianas (which he sees as the decisive victory of the Pacific theater) were absolutely huge. Spruance’s 5th Fleet included 7 aircraft carriers, 8 light aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 8 cruisers, 12 light cruisers, and 67 destroyers—ships worth a total of $2,500,000,000 in 1944 dollars (the equivalent of America’s spending on ground forces for all of 1942). The 15 aircraft carriers were armed with almost a thousand planes. A total of 46 tankers supported the fleet, carrying 4,500,000 barrels of oil, 8,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and 275,000 barrels of diesel. On the American side, the Pacific war had become capital-intensive, and the number of troops employed was actually quite small (although casualties were very high among the soldiers or Marines who saw combat). O’Brien argues that once the Marianas were captured, “the war was over strategically” (422). China, the Philippines, and just about any other island in the Pacific became irrelevant. The Americans could use aircraft based on the Marianas to bomb Japan as well as to interdict trade between Japan and its imperial possessions. Japan entered a terminal decline as its imports were sunk and factories were destroyed.

The implications of O’Brien’s arguments for the historiography of World War II are great. First, he elevates the significance of naval and especially air power over armies. Second, as his opening line suggests, he stresses attrition on the air-sea “super-battlefield” at the expense of traditional land battles. Third, he emphasizes the contributions of Britain and the United States to Axis defeat and, by implication, downgrades the Soviet Union’s efforts. Fourth, he underscores the degree to which the Allies won because they destroyed Axis mobility at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. O’Brien suggests that two very different types of forces waged World War II. On the one hand, armies required a great deal of manpower but proved relatively cheap to put in the field. On the other, navies and air forces proved far more capital-intensive and technologically sophisticated in relation to the amount of manpower employed. The former looked somewhat to the past while the latter pointed to the future.

Elements of O’Brien’s argument may seem familiar, but they are buttressed with batteries of statistics that are presented in such a way as to make the reader look at matters in a new light (e.g. the development and production of the V-2 “cost Germany in relative terms as much as the Manhattan Project cost the United States” [340]). Since so much rides on statistics in this book, the question becomes, of course, are these statistics correct? This reviewer is not qualified to dispute O’Brien’s numbers, but it is worth pointing out that elements of the author’s arguments do rest on calculations and speculations of different sorts that other historians expert in the field might dispute. Other scholars are sure to take issue with the absence of the Soviet Union from most of this book. While O’Brien’s purpose consists of explaining the contribution of Anglo-American air and sea power to Allied victory, the title of his work suggests that this power was preponderant in defeating the Germans. Without investigating the Soviet Union to the same extent as the Western Allies, it is hard for the reader to know for sure. Finally, the stress on material factors (i.e. the production and destruction of munitions) tends to provide a lopsided view of the war. While O’Brien’s account does analyze strategy, it does not consider the significance of operations and tactics to the outcome of the war. For example, had the Japanese concentrated their carrier forces in the first half of 1942 instead of dispersing them in a series of fruitless raids and operations, the Americans very well could have been the ones to lose all of their carriers at Midway—and that would certainly have exerted a huge influence on the course of the war.

These quibbles aside, O’Brien’s work is an important reconsideration of the war if for no other reason that it reassesses the relative contributions of the Big Three to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Wars are Not Always Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battle, But Attrition is not the Answer

Cathal Nolan, who teaches military history (among other things) at Boston University, recently wrote an essay entitled “Wars are not Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battles” in the online journal Aeon.


In this piece, Nolan criticizes traditional military history for focusing on battles—something that misleads the public into thinking that wars are won “in an hour or an afternoon of blood and bone.” Such a view of war also entices “generals and statesmen with the idea that a hard red day can be decisive, and allow us to avoid attrition” which many see as “morally vulgar and without redemptive heroism.” If we begin to understand that wars are a matter of “joining weight of material to strength of will,” we come to comprehend that victory is attained less by military genius than by “grinding,” “resolve,” and “strategic depth.” Having recognized that war is about attrition, we must embrace that fact. As Nolan puts it:

With humility and full moral awareness of its terrible costs, if we decide that a war is worth fighting, we should praise attrition more and battle less. There is as much room for courage and character in a war of attrition as in a battle.

Before writing anything else, One Thing after Another must concede that Nolan is correct about a number of things. Clearly, as he argues, there is much more to war than battle. There are the operational, strategic, and political dimensions of war, and these involve areas as diverse as culture and economics. He is also on the mark in arguing that, quite frequently, wars are drawn-out affairs in which the defeated party is vanquished as much by material exhaustion as by anything else. The spirit behind this essay, which requires us to accept that there is no short-cut to military victory, is commendable. In the same way that one cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs, one cannot win a war without a commitment that involves many soldiers getting killed. Finally, every military historian must, as Nolan does, give the Tolstoyan view of warfare its due; fighting is a chaotic enterprise over which generals find it difficult to assert control.

One Thing after Another also understands that Nolan probably seeks to offer a kind of intellectual provocation. Even so, in responding, the blogosphere must do its best to keep him honest. And honesty compels this blog to disagree with Nolan’s argument on a number of grounds. To start with, Nolan’s terms are often ill-defined and his argument overdrawn when he discusses the current state of military history as well as the public’s understanding of war. What literature is he referring to when he mentions “traditional military history” which presents battles “as fulcrum moments where empires rose or fell in a day”? What exactly is the “drums-and-trumpets style,” and with what frequency are “popular histories” written that way? Which historians celebrate “even failed campaigns as glorious”? One Thing after Another does not recognize the current state of military history in these statements. Are academic and professional military historians implicated in Nolan’s charges? If not, he should make that point clear. If so, he is wrong. Nolan’s charges concerning war movies also seem problematic. Are they universally about “raw courage and red days, the thrill of vicarious violence and spectacle”? This blog can think of numerous and substantial exceptions to this claim. And on what basis does Nolan assert that “most people” still think wars are won “in an afternoon”? In light of current events, such a claim appears questionable.

The argument that all wars are more or less won by attrition also seems like something of an overstatement. Every conflict witnesses a degree of attrition, but if one claims that they are all won through this process, the category of attrition ceases to be a particularly useful category of analysis. Moreover, insisting that attrition is central to all wars would iron out the uniqueness of each conflict, and as historians we are bound to recognize this uniqueness. Most important, though, is the fact that many wars clearly are not won by attrition. Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of several conflicts that more or less consisted of a single major battle (e.g. Hastings, Jena-Auerstedt, and Königgrätz). In many more cases, there are wars that were decided by a great battle (e.g. Gaugamela) or wars that were in no way won by attrition (e.g. the Falklands War).

Even if the notion that wars were won by attrition was entirely correct, we would still be justified in studying battles (although not to the exclusion of all else). It is, after all, through battle that attrition often takes place. In this context, one recalls Friedrich Engels’ paraphrasing of Carl von Clausewitz (which appeared in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle—a book, by the way, that completely reconfigured the approach to battle history for the better over forty years ago): “Fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.” Even if it is not decisive in an afternoon, battle is decisive nonetheless. One thinks in this context of William Philpott’s Three Armies on the Somme (2010). This battle history argues that the Somme was an attritional fight that played a major role in hollowing out the Germany army and paving the way for Allied victory during World War I. In other words, by attriting the German army, the Somme contributed to decision and is worthy of study.

Of course, if battle is significant, so is generalship. After all, one of the reasons our armed forced study military history—and particularly battle history—is to cultivate leadership to fight future wars as well as we can. Nolan counsels, however, that we should not worship “military genius”; instead, we must value “sound generalship.” The distinction is not entirely clear. One Thing after Another is put in mind of Clausewitz’s famous statement about friction that appears in On War: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Is Nolan advising, then, that we should give up on brilliance and hope for nothing more than military leaders who can execute simple operations in the name of attrition?

The problem is that deliberately embracing a classic strategy of attrition (that is, where attrition is preeminent—for attrition is always present) leads to significant ethical problems. For one thing, it places us on the path of reducing humanity to an instrument or an object rather than treating human life as an end in itself (think of Immanuel Kant here). For another, as scholars operating in the Just War tradition have pointed out, attrition often leads to violations of the criterion of proportionality in jus in bello. By its very nature, generals employing attrition as a strategy are inclined to unleash violence of great intensity on an enormous scale that can be inordinate when compared to the aims sought. Such an approach to war is wasteful of human life and is therefore condemnable, especially when other strategies are available. Of course, Nolan’s point seems to be that, generally speaking, no other strategies are truly available; despite our best efforts, wars are de facto about attrition, so we may as well call a spade a spade and get on with it. There is perhaps some merit in such honesty, but this kind of truthfulness places us on a terrible and slippery slope.

After Waterloo, which capped almost a quarter century of continuous fighting in Europe, military men became enamored of Napoleon. They studied Napoleon through his leading interpreter, Antoine-Henri Jomini, in an attempt to understand the secret of attaining decision on the battlefield, and they largely reconceived military history as the story of decisive battles. Since 1945, more often than not, the United States has found itself involved in frustrating “protracted” wars (to use Mao Zedong’s phrase) in which the enemy has often targeted this country’s will to sustain the struggle. Indeed, at this moment, America still finds itself mired in wars of long duration in Central Asia and the Middle East. Considering these circumstances, is it any surprise that a contemporary scholar is willing to throw up his hands, claim that the age of decisive battle never was, and tell us to embrace attrition? In his prescriptions, Nolan is very much unlike Napoleon’s successors; the former counsels attrition, the latter sought decision on the battlefield. Where they are similar, though, is in their tendency to recast the past in the image of their own time. Admittedly, to quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.”  Yet if we allow our current preoccupations to color our view of the past too much, we run the risk of producing ahistorical interpretations.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin, 2013).  

Richard Overy is one of the leading historians of World War II alive today, and while he has written on a number of topics associated with that conflict, the fighting in the air is his area of special expertise. While The Bombing War is not as comprehensive as some of his other works, such as the The Air War, 1939-1945 (1980), it is one of his most powerful books. For those interested in the topic of strategic bombing during World War II, The Bombing War is indispensable. It balances the meticulous research and broad vision that only an expert of Overy’s caliber can produce.

One of Overy’s purposes in writing The Bombing War is to provide “the first full narrative history of the bombing war in Europe” (xxiv). This narrative, he argues, is more complete than previous efforts because a) it covers all of Europe, b) it integrates bombing into the “broad strategic picture” (xxiv), and c) it links the narratives of those who did the bombing with those who were bombed. Overy’s other main objective consists of “re-examining the established narratives on the bombing war” which have been shaped, especially in the British and American cases, by official histories (xxv-xxvi). (The United States The Army Air Forces in World War II, which consisted of seven volumes, was published between 1948 and 1958, while Britain’s four-volume equivalent, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, appeared in 1961). Overy has conducted this re-examination by studying the “private papers of individuals and institutions” as well as parts of the official record that “were originally closed to public scrutiny because they raised awkward questions” (xxvi). At 642 pages of small, densely printed text, The Bombing War is long (maybe overlong), but it never loses sight of two related theses. First, strategic bombing during the war never lived up to the hype of its proponents; there was a big discrepancy between promise and achievement. Second, strategic bombing, as practiced during the conflict, was a bludgeon that did not achieve enough to justify the enormous collateral damage that it inflicted on both lives and property.

Overy’s story begins with a discussion of World War I and the interwar period. Here, he focuses on two major developments that helped make strategic bombing possible during World War II. The massive mobilization of World War I as well as the rhetoric that followed afterwards led everyone to assume that the next war would be “total” and that civilians would naturally be targets in this conflict. This discourse meshed well with assumptions among airmen and statesmen that urban conurbations of the modern era were particularly susceptible to dislocation from aerial bombing. Based on little evidence, those who contemplated the course of air war in the future believed that industry was vulnerable to destruction and that civilians living in big cities would panic easily. These attitudes, however, did not make strategic bombing during World War II inevitable; Overy argues that it was only events during the war that made such a thing possible.

Among the many limits that prevented airmen from immediately and deliberately dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians in 1939 was the fact that many air forces believed that their primary mission consisted of supporting the army in a ground-attack role. And indeed, Overy argues that two incidents widely seen as initiating “terror” bombing during the war—the Luftwaffe’s bombardments of Warsaw and Rotterdam—were not that at all. In both cases, he claims that German aircraft sought out enemy ground forces that happened to be ensconced in or near urban areas. These two attacks resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed. The air assault against Rotterdam proved especially tragic since German and Dutch forces were then negotiating the surrender of the city but could not get word to the Luftwaffe fast enough to halt the air attack.

The first real strategic bombing campaign took place over the skies of Britain between 1940 and 1941. Overall German strategy was muddled from the start, constantly shifting from one objective to the next. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not decide whether to encourage the British to enter negotiations, invade southern England and dictate a settlement, or use ships, submarines, and aircraft to impose a blockade on British ports. As Overy puts it, “Hitler opted for all three possibilities, and achieved none of them” (68). Whatever the case, all three required the Luftwaffe to play an important role and demanded a heavy commitment from Hitler’s airmen. Forces, however, were frittered away as “the German offensive hovered between trying to gain air superiority against the RAF, preparation for invasion, contributing to the blockade by sea of British trade, degrading Britain’s industrial war potential and vague expectations of a crisis afflicting the enemy’s morale” (611). The failure to fix on an appropriate target and destroy it (along with the inability to match ends with means) accounted in large part for the frustration of German aims. This frustration occurred in spite of Britain’s weaknesses in civil defense (which were not made good until the latter part of 1941) and huge deficiencies in the RAF’s night-fighting capacity.

Although, as Overy points out, each strategic bombing campaign of the war differed in a number of ways, the German attack on Britain was emblematic in that it was planned and launched on the fly; almost no research or preparation for such an effort had been performed during the pre-war period (which accounts for the strategic confusion). This problem would also plague Allied campaigns throughout the conflict. The German campaign was also important in that it stretched notions of what was considered permissible during the war. The British in particular subjected the German campaign to very close scrutiny. In some cases, RAF’s Bomber Command learned important lessons (e.g. dense concentrations of incendiaries mixed with high explosive bombs were particularly useful in destroying large parts of towns). In others, the British misconstrued with the Luftwaffe had been up to (e.g. they assumed Germans were engaged in mere terror bombing). In still others, the RAF totally missed the boat (e.g. the British ramped up their bombing of German cities in the hope of demoralizing civilians and dislocating the economy without pausing to think that the Germans had failed to do the very same thing in the very same way).

With these observations in mind, it should come as no surprise that Overy is extremely critical of Bomber Command’s own effort against Germany and occupied Europe. Initially, the RAF’s campaign was too piecemeal, light, inaccurate, and scattered to have much effect. Starting in late 1941, however, the British more or less decided on the area bombing of German cities in an attempt to demoralize, dehouse, and decimate German civilians (which is what they thought the Germans had attempted to do to them). Although Britain’s political and military leadership always felt ambivalent about this decision, the appointment of Sir Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command in February 1942 gave the force an aggressive and intractable advocate who was fully committed to the air war against German civilians to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless, progress was stymied by a number of shortcomings. There was a lack of appropriate, heavy four-engined bombers (as late as 1942, the number of Avro Lancasters was limited). The British were also plagued by “the slow development of target-finding and marking, [and] the dilatory development of effective electronic aids, marker bombs and bombsights.”  And then there was “the inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximize effectiveness and cope with enemy defenses”—a problem that had also hampered the Germans (300). Despite its ineffectiveness, Bomber Command was allowed to persist in its campaign which swallowed a very large proportion of available British resources (about 7% of total British man-hours during the conflict)—no small victory for Harris and his subordinates who sought to safeguard their bailiwick.

The entry of the United States into the war did not change the British situation a great deal. The Americans made clear that they would not divert bombers from their factories to supply the British. Not surprisingly, considering the many demands placed on the United States, it took the Americans some time to organize, equip, and train a large bomber force that could exercise any influence in the European theater. The Allies made much fuss about a “combined offensive” and “round-the-clock” bombing (Americans during the day, British at night), which seemed to suggest that their bombers acted in concert. The truth of the matter was that their campaigns operated merely in parallel and did not reinforce each other at all. The Americans did not think much of bombing cities for the sake of depressing German morale. They were more interested in employing daytime precision attacks and destroying specific targets that would slow down German production (although Overy admits that when visibility was limited, American blind bombing was just as indiscriminate as anything Bomber Command did). Overy intimates that although American forces experienced difficulty in finding the bottlenecks that could bring the German economy to a halt, they expressed a much more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to bombing than Harris ever did. Bomber Command continued its nocturnal attempt to destroy city after city in the hope that the cumulative destruction would eventually end the war somehow.

In the end, Overy argues, Allied strategic bombing did not end the war, but it did influence the manner in which Germany was defeated. In early 1944, American forces finally made a commitment to using the bombing campaign as a means of destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. The delay in reaching this decision was not determined by technology; it was also a matter of placing commanders in the European theater who shared that vision. By that date, Carl Spaatz (commander of US strategic air forces), Jimmy Doolittle (Eighth Air Force), and William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) occupied the key American positions in Europe and agreed that it was necessary to combine “the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil” (361). Initially spearheaded by P-47s with drop tanks (the P-51s came later), fighter loosely accompanying American bombers sought out German aircraft, leading to huge air battles with massive casualties on both sides. It was a campaign of attrition for which the Germans were ill-suited. Two major developments occurred as a result. First, the Germans redistributed resources—personnel, fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns—to the homeland on a large scale to counter this threat. These were resources that could not be deployed on other fronts to support German ground forces (including anti-aircraft weapons which could double as anti-tank guns). Second, having forced the Germans to concentrate their aircraft in Germany, the Americans proceeded to destroy the Luftwaffe, shooting down enormous numbers of planes and killing their pilots. By mid-year, the Americans had achieved air supremacy over France and Germany. And then strategic bombing lurched forward on a much larger scale than ever before; three-quarters of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany fell between September 1944 and May 1945. The Allies persisted in heavy bombing largely because they were worried that the Germans might suddenly produce new weapons that could turn the tide (the V-weapons as well as the Messerschmidt Me 262 jet fighter certainly gave them reason to think this way). They also hoped that more bombing could bring the war to a swifter end—the British thinking that obliterating more cities would tip Germany over the edge while the Americans believed that the destruction of oil and transportation targets would undermine the German war effort. Still, German productivity reached its height in the last three months of 1944, when bombing was extraordinarily heavy. Allied victory eventually came at an extremely high cost to victor and vanquished, but the impact of bombing was only one of several factors that defeated the Axis powers.

Many readers familiar with the topic will have seen parts of this narrative before, but Overy presents a version of the story that is very much his own in which a number of key arguments, great and small, are modified. Overy’s book is particularly interesting when it comes to discussing civil defense and the impact of the war on civilians, something that most histories of strategic bombing do not study in a systematic way. The Bombing War stresses the degree to which different circumstances obtained in different countries. For instance, civil defense in Britain was characterized by friction between the voluntarist tradition of a free society and the centralizing tendency of the state. In Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the party saw civil defense mainly as a means of political and social mobilization. Whatever the case, the experience of civil defense was similar to that of the bomber forces in that its preparations were incomplete upon the war’s outbreak; capacity and sophistication generally grew as the war continued. It is hard to make generalizations about bombing’s impact on the various peoples of Europe, though, as every country was different. Overy points out that a good case could be made that bombing helped topple Mussolini in 1943, but he proceeds to argue that the collapse of the Fascist regime had more to do with its overall inability to cope with the various stresses of modern war. In cases where the state or party was more or less equal to the challenges of fulfilling civilians’ needs (e.g. Britain and Germany), heavy bombing generally did not enhance or undermine the population’s will to resist. If anything, it made civilians more reliant on the authorities which reduced the potential for dissent. The picture Overy paints of civilian populations under sustained air attacks is one of anxiety, exhaustion, and deprivation. Moreover, these populations were highly mobile as they left destroyed urban areas in search of shelter, food, and working utilities. It is not surprising that people in such a position would turn to the state for succor.

Conquered territories, particularly in western Europe, found themselves in a unique position. Generally hostile to the German occupation, they initially supported the Allied bombing of military targets. The RAF hoped that a campaign in these regions would damage German military installations (e.g. submarine pens) and slow down production in factories that had worked on German contracts. Later, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, the Allies sought to destroy most of northern France’s transportation infrastructure (and once troops had landed in Normandy, heavy bombers were used for ground support). In these regions, the British always saw bombing as a propaganda act that could demoralize collaborators and give resistance a boost. Unfortunately, once the RAF began bombing France and the Low Countries without restriction in February 1942, opinion in these countries turned against the British initiative. Just as they were in Germany, Allied bombings tended to be inaccurate and destructive, resulting in many civilian casualties (almost 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs). In the conclusion of his chapter on the bombing of occupied Europe, Overy notes, “Bombing was a blunt instrument as the Allies knew full well, but is bluntness was more evident and more awkward when the bombs fell outside Germany” (606).

Not surprisingly, Overy concludes that strategic bombing as practiced during World War II was a crude, wasteful, and illegal strategy. Moreover, it was a failure on its own terms. It sought to win the war singlehandedly by destroying the enemy economy, demoralizing the enemy population, and deracinating the enemy’s political system. In all of these areas, the impact of bombing was limited. Strategic bombing’s main contribution to Allied victory—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—was almost incidental. The obsession with the “weight and scale” of attacks, rather than accuracy, paved the way for post-war nuclear arsenals that sought to do the same thing but on a much larger scale. This approach to strategic bombing would prove a dead-end; precision-guided munitions, Overy argues, were the “way forward” (613). We can be thankful, then, that “profound changes in available weapons, the transformation of geopolitical reality and post-war ethical sensibilities have all combined to make the bombing war between 1939 and 1945 a unique phenomenon in modern European history, not possible earlier and not reproducible since” (633).

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hugh Dubrulle

NOTE: This essay reviews the Penguin UK version of Overy’s book, not the Penguin USA edition (entitled The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945). The latter was heavily edited and is much shorter than the former. The reviewer recommends that you purchase the British version.

Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21636708-secularism-or-religion-more-authoritarian-trouble-and-strife)
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-fields-of-blood-by-karen-armstrong/2014/10/23/a098e374-4d90-11e4-aa5e-7153e466a02d_story.html)

Hugh Dubrulle

Point-Counterpoint: Masur versus Dubrulle on the Biggest Disasters in U.S. Military History

Custer's Last Stand

Some weeks ago, on the History Department Facebook page, we posted an article by George Dvorsky on the “Eight Biggest Disasters in U.S. Military History.” As expected, the post generated some discussion, much of it critical of the list. Professors Dubrulle and Masur thought a discussion of this flawed list would provide a good opportunity to offer their own thoughts on what does and does not constitute an American military disaster. In doing so, they hoped their ideas would show something about how historians attack a question.

The original post offered the following criteria in determining what the biggest military disasters were: “For the purposes of this list, therefore, a ‘military disaster’ will be defined as a historically significant episode in which the U.S. military endured any of the following problems: protracted mission failure, an inability to thwart enemy action, or a breakdown in command and control structure. It can also include an embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat.”

Using this standard, Dvorsky’s list was as follows:

The American Invasion of Canada (1812)
The Capture of Harper’s Ferry (1862)
The Battle of Antietam (1862)
The Pancho Villa Expedition (1916-1917)
The American Defense of the Philippines (1941-1942)
The Battle of Kasserine Pass (1943)
The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961)
The American Disbanding of the Iraqi Army (2003)

Let’s start with Professor Masur’s thoughts. . . .

Professor Masur

I’m not sure that I am equipped to provide my own list of America’s “top military disasters.” I’m not a military historian, and as a result I would say that I am not particularly well-versed on specific details of America’s military conflicts. Moreover, I tend to focus on America in the twentieth century, meaning my knowledge of earlier American military affairs is a bit sketchy. That’s too bad, because the earlier discussion highlighted how many Civil War battles would be good candidates for this list. Finally, while my own research deals with an American military conflict (the Vietnam War), it is a conflict that is often studied without a primary focus on the sorts of military engagements that might make up a list of this nature.

Before offering a list, I’ll try to explain the general rules or guidelines I am using for determining what is a “military disaster.”

  • The result of a decision or action that was made, primarily or in large part, by members of the military. This rules out, e.g., the decision to commit American support to South Vietnam and eventually escalate and Americanize the conflict. It also rules out the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. These two decisions would likely rank among the biggest foreign policy mistakes since World War II, and they of course had significant repercussions for the military. But the decisions themselves were not, in my view, military disasters.
  • The decision had significant negative repercussions for the United States, and the negative consequences can be persuasively seen as outweighing any positive outcomes that may have resulted from the decision. This might mean that the decision resulted in significant American casualties, but it could also mean that the decision had economic repercussions or in some way undermined America’s strategic interests. Both the Vietnam War and the second Gulf War would meet the this standard.
  • The negative consequences of the disaster can be reasonably traced to the decision itself. The failure to convincingly defeat Germany in World War I may have created conditions that contributed to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. But so many other factors emerged in the years after World War I that it would be hard for me to consider this a direct result of World War I.

There are a couple of military disasters that popped into my head, but for a variety of reasons I decided to leave them off the list.

The Tet Offensive (1968)
Historians have written countless pages on the Tet Offensive, devoting a significant portion to debating whether or not the battle was a defeat for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. The consensus today seems to be that the battle was not militarily crippling for either U.S. forces or the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN—the South Vietnamese armed forces who were allied with the U.S.). In fact, the National Liberation Front or “Viet Cong” suffered terrible losses in the fighting. At the same time, the battle did contribute to growing American discontent with the prolonged military effort. U.S. forces may have erred in not being more prepared for the attack, but because the U.S. reacted quickly and repelled the offensive it was not, in my estimation, a military disaster.

Pearl Harbor (1941)
This is an interesting candidate. A number of people commenting on the original piece noted that Pearl Harbor would be an obvious choice. While it was a disaster for the United States, an intriguing counterargument could be made that Pearl Harbor was a far greater military disaster for Japan. Professor Dubrulle can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that some Japanese observers at the time anticipated that Pearl Harbor would spell the eventual doom for Japan’s expansion in the Pacific. This raises a semantic or philosophical point: can the same battle be a disaster for both sides? I can see the argument for yes, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll go with “no” and therefore keep Pearl Harbor off my list.

So with all of that out of the way, what would I include?

Little Bighorn (1876)
I know next to nothing about the serious scholarship on Little Bighorn, so my view is rooted almost entirely in the way the battle is perceived in the popular imagination. But come on—Custer and his men getting annihilated by the Dakota Indians? Of course that has to be on the list.

The Decision to Push North of the 38th Parallel and Approach the Chinese Border in the Korean War (1950)
This makes sense because it so clearly falls at the feet of the military commander, General Douglas MacArthur. His decision to press the advantage against the North Koreans was arrogant and reckless. Moreover, he stubbornly refused to consider the consequences of his decision. His decision arguably prolonged the war, leading to widespread American casualties. And it is worth remembering that the victims of his decision were not entirely or even primarily Americans—Chinese, North Korean, and South Korean troops all suffered heavy losses, and the war had disastrous consequences for Korean civilians.

Westmoreland’s Attrition Strategy in Vietnam (1964)
This was, as far as I know, a decision made by William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam from 1964-68. Most historians admit that it was a terrible mistake. Interestingly, this is one of the few issues that “orthodox” Vietnam War historians (that is, historians who tend to think the American intervention was a mistake) and “revisionist” Vietnam War historians (those who think that it was a justifiable and necessary war that could have been won) tend to agree upon. The orthodox historians view it as evidence of America’s inability to understand the conflict in Vietnam, particularly its political and social dimensions. The revisionists argue that Westmoreland’s decision was one of the factors that prevent the United States from prevailing in the conflict—an outcome, they argue, that was within reach.

There are probably more disasters to include. I’ll give honorable mention to two disasters from the Spanish-American War. One was the pacification of the Philippines once the war ended. The pacification effort lasted for years and was far more deadly for both Americans and Filipinos than the war itself. I don’t know enough about it to say whether this was the responsibility of the military or civilian leadership. The Spanish-American War was also notoriously mismanaged. The U.S. prevailed in spite of this mismanagement, but it likely led to the unnecessary death of American soldiers who were improperly outfitted or fed during the conflict.

Now for Professor Dubrulle. . . .

Professor Dubrulle

I’d like to start by stating that I don’t like Dvorsky’s criteria. First, they are vague. What exactly is a “historically significant episode”? Second, “protracted mission failure” and “inability to thwart enemy action” amount to pretty much the same thing—an inability to impose one’s will on the enemy. Third, a “breakdown in command and control structure” seems like an unusual item to include on the list. Is that an essential feature of military disaster? Fourth, “embarrassing, lopsided, or unexpected defeat” could mean many things. Yet perhaps most important of all, this list is something of a catch-all, consisting of very different and inconsistent ideas. (Indeed, the list seems to be inspired by the Wikipedia entry for “List of Military Disasters.”)

At the same time, I don’t believe that Dvorsky has applied his own criteria particularly well. Was the Pancho Villa expedition a “historically significant episode”? Why was the Battle of the Wabash (1791) left out? It was very badly fought, and as a result, a quarter of the U.S. regular army was wiped out by the Western Indian Confederacy. Moreover, a number of Civil War battles could meet Dvorsky’s standard better than Harper’s Ferry and Antietam. And the Bay of Pigs? Really?

The phrase “military disaster” requires a more precise definition. It could mean a) a battle that was badly fought and lost or b) a battle lost that had very bad ramifications. There is an important distinction between the two. For instance, the Fetterman Fight (1866) and the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) fit in the former category. They were very badly lost, but their ramifications were somewhat limited. Pearl Harbor, however, definitely falls in the second category. Arguments could be made for both definitions of “military disaster,” but my preference would be for the second one because battles  meeting this standard possess greater historical significance.

These considerations bring me to Matt’s thoughts. I know I shouldn’t have read his contribution before writing my own (that’s a bit like cheating), but I couldn’t stop myself. Matt makes a lot of sense to me, but in light of the comments I’ve made above, I’d like to modify one of his criteria—the one concerning “negative repercussions.” It makes sense that we define this phrase by identifying it with existential threats to the United States or, at the very least, extremely difficult (and ominous) political or strategic problems.

Otto von Bismarck supposedly once said, “There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” Americans have been lucky or powerful enough to avoid battles that presented existential threats to their nation. Yet we can still create an interesting list of battles based on this criterion.

The Battle of Long Island (1776)
Hardly anybody remembers this battle, but it was the largest of the Revolutionary War and almost led to the end of the American struggle for independence. It was fought in August 1776, shortly after the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. George Washington sought to defend New York City by stationing men on the southern tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights on Long Island (which overlooked Manhattan). The British landed on Staten Island before sending a large force to Gravesend Bay on Long Island (east of where the Americans were). They drove Washington’s force off the Heights of Guan and pushed them into Brooklyn Village, pinning the Americans against the East River. In other words, the Americans were now surrounded—stuck between the East River and the British. At this point, had the British decided to press their advantage and attacked Washington’s disorganized army, they would have captured almost all of it. Instead, they settled in for a siege. This decision gave Washington time to escape to Manhattan. In a daring and risky operation, a regiment of fishermen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, under the command of John Glover, quietly rowed the American forces across the East River at night, practically under the nose of the Royal Navy. Had the British acted with more alacrity, they could have bagged 19,000 Continentals and militia along with Washington himself. The Revolution would have been over right after it had started, and there would have been no United States at all.

The Battle of Antietam (1862)
This battle belongs on the list, but not for Dvorsky’s reasons. During the summer of 1862, the British Cabinet began to think about either recognizing the Confederacy or intervening in the war. Recognition would only come, though, if the Confederacy had pretty much secured its independence beyond a doubt (after the Seven Days’ Battles and the Second Battle of Bull Run, some members of the Cabinet believed it was well on its way to attaining this objective). Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, was of this opinion. Those who favored intervention (like Earl Russell, the Foreign Secretary, and William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) believed the war was a terrible humanitarian disaster for both America and Britain (due to the interruption of commerce, particularly cotton trade, and the potential for a huge slave insurrection) that had no end in sight. They favored British mediation (in conjunction with probably France and Russia) that would probably have led to the independence of the Confederacy. The traditional view of Antietam (which was a tactical draw but a strategic Northern victory) was that it arrested British moves toward recognition or intervention. The North showed that it still had plenty of fight, or so the argument went, and the battle allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped make the war about slavery. The North’s willingness to keep fighting, along with the new moral crusade it had embraced, supposedly led the British to reconsider interfering in the war. However, as Howard Jones and a number of other scholars have pointed out, Antietam made some British Cabinet members more inclined to pursue mediation; the draw at Antietam suggested the war would drag on even longer, doing even more harm to both American and British interests. Fortunately, in November 1862, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, the Secretary of State for War, rallied the Cabinet against mediation (which France favored at that point). In all likelihood, mediation would have meant the splitting of the United States.

Pearl Harbor (1941)
I get the problem that Matt is struggling with when it comes to Pearl Harbor. By attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese started a war with the United States that it only had a slim chance of winning. Even the Japanese leadership felt this way. We can say, then, that in the long run and from a political point of view, the attack was a terrible Japanese mistake. But in the short run, the attack was a big tactical success and presented the United States with great operational and strategic difficulties. These difficulties hampered American attempts to deal with Japanese advances in the eastern Pacific. Among other things, they doomed the American garrison on the Philippines. The American disaster at Pearl Harbor, however, was mitigated by good luck and some excellent foresight. The Japanese did not catch any of the American aircraft carriers in the harbor, they failed to destroy American oil storage facilities in Hawaii, and of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor, only two were permanently lost (one never left service, three returned to service in 1942, and two more became available in 1944). Even more important, in July 1940 Congress had passed the Vinson-Walsh Act (otherwise known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act) that funded a dramatic expansion of the U.S. Navy. The vessels funded by this act did not begin to become available until 1942, but the United States did not lose as much time as it might have otherwise in replacing its naval losses. Still, the attack forced the U.S. Navy to fight on its back heel for much of 1942—at the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.

Battle of Bataan (1942)
Pearl Harbor compromised the American defense of the Philippines. The Japanese were determined to take the Philippine archipelago because it sat astride their line of communication with their southeast Asian possessions. Although the American defense of Luzon (conducted by an army that consisted mainly of Filipinos), which eventually centered on the Bataan peninsula, was often marked by great courage, it was not always well led or conceived. Eventually, 15,000 American and 60,000 Filipino soldiers were compelled to surrender. This was the largest surrender of forces under American command ever. It deprived the United States of an important base from which to contest Japanese advances in Asia; the United States would have to work its way across the southern and central Pacific to get at Japan. And it was yet another defeat of Allied power in Asia (French Indochina, Dutch Indonesia, and British Malaysia and Burma were all conquered by the Japanese at this time) that did much to discredit Western colonialism in Asia–a development of world significance.

Tet Offensive (1968)
I will put Tet on my list. Yes, Tet was a military defeat for the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam. But if war is a tool by which we seek political objectives, in the long run, Tet contributed in a big way to eventual North Vietnamese victory. As a result of Tet, much of the American public questioned the credibility and honesty of the American government, an attitude that was only augmented by the sudden rise in American casualties and the army’s request for troop increases in Vietnam. The request threatened to put America’s entire manpower policy under stress (it might have required a massive call-up of reservists), increase inflation, exacerbate America’s balance-of-payment problem, and worsen a looming economic crisis. More immediately, Tet shook the confidence of Lyndon Johnson and his advisors. Although nobody could see it clearly at the time, this was the beginning of the end. Of course, there’s defeat, and then there’s defeat. As a result of our loss, we did not have to bow to new North Vietnamese masters (see the Onion headline below). But the American defeat in Vietnam had a big impact on foreign policy, led to a long-running debate in the military about how best to fight little wars, and fundamentally shaped the attitudes of the public.

Onion Vietnam Wins War

The Battle of Bladensburg (1814)
Enjoying control of Chesapeake Bay, the British were interested in launching a series of raids there to tie down American forces and make them unavailable for an invasion of Canada. Major General Robert Ross, relying on support from Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s fleet, decided to launch a raid against Washington, DC and Baltimore. For this task, he had only four battalions of regular infantry, one battalion of Royal Marines, and assorted auxiliaries—a total of 4,300 men. Facing him were something on the order of one regular infantry battalion, some dragoons from the regular army, a small collection of sailors, and over 6,000 American militiamen. To make a long story short, the British assaulted the Americans at Bladensburg and routed the militia which ran through the streets of Washington. The British were able, then, to enter the city and burn most of its public buildings, including the White House (then referred to as the Presidential Mansion) and the Capitol. The strategic results of this action were barren; the British failed to capture Baltimore, they had to retreat to their ships in the bay, and no significant long-term results issued from the burning of Washington. But, oh, the shame of having the young nation’s capital occupied and put to the torch! And after such an inglorious defeat!