In War: Resolution

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

In In War: Resolution, Victor Davis Hanson claims that “what 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.”

It’s a long list. He starts with intelligence failures:

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.

That’s just the beginning.

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