The Follies of War

In an interesting series of articles in National Review, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University recently reviewed the blunders of World War II that, in his estimation, were far worse than any thing that accompanied the American experience in the liberation of Iraq. We all know the story. America was…

• slow to build up the necessary forces,

• slow to shut down Al Jazeera TV in Baghdad,

• underestimated the insurgency that followed the liberation,

• failed to stop the looting in the days following the fall of Baghdad,

• lacked any effective intelligence infrastructure in the country,

• failed to establish adequate filtering mechanisms to prevent Ba’athist sympathizers from infiltrating the new Iraqi security services,

• failed to make Iraqis more prominent in government and on television early in the campaign,

• failed to respond immediately to the murder of the American contractors in Fallujah,

• lacked the oversight necessary to prevent the Abu Ghraib debacle,

• showed laxity in securing Iraq’s borders and arms depots and

• delayed reforming the Iraqi army, holding elections, dispersing allotted reconstruction funds, providing American troops with the armored vehicles necessary to protect them from roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs)….and the list goes on.


Unfortunately, what is lost in all this criticism, according to Hanson, has been any historical perspective. Blunder, horror and occasional cruelty are the stuff of war, he says, and as it goes, World War II had more than its share.

In that war, historians have chosen to overlook the errors preferring instead to elevate the outcome of the conflict (and rightfully so) – that in four years, this untested nation of farmers and down-home country boys with barely a navy, fought two global wars on the land, sea and air on three continents against determined, fanatical enemies and, in the process supplied Britain and Russia with enough materiel, not only to keep them in the war, but to achieve final victory.

We are told that World War II was the yardstick by which any and all American wars must be gauged, whereas the Iraqi War continues to be condemned both as a military and strategic blunder where the errors far outweigh the outcome.

Truth is, World War II was successful; but it was not without serious errors. Our leaders and soldiers did some pretty terrible things to win that war – things that, today, would be considered totally unacceptable such as……

· losing 7,000 American soldiers on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944,

· occasional unauthorized shootings of German captives,

· firebombing Dresden and other German cities (knowing that thousands would perish in the deluge), and

· dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing hundreds of thousands of civilians (viewed at the time as “acceptable collateral damage”)………almost anything to destroy the Nazis and Japanese war machines and to achieve victory.

During the land war, American armored vehicles were deathtraps and were only improved days before the final German surrender. American Sherman tanks paled in match-ups with German Panthers and Tigers. Fully 60% of all lost Shermans were torched by single shots from enemy tanks, while only one in three American salvos even penetrated German armor.

Patton, the one general that could have ended the western war in 1944, was relieved and then subordinated to an auxiliary position with near fatal results for the drive from Normandy. And mediocrities like General Mark Clark flourished and were promoted.

Others blunders ensured that Americans had inferior anti-tank weapons, machine guns, and mortars when they met the seasoned Wehrmacht. Germans had heavy overcoats and white camouflage while GIs froze and were easy targets in the snow with their dark uniforms.

In the sea war, American torpedoes often failed. Amphibious assaults like Anzio and Tarawa were bloodbaths characterized by terrible planning and poor command performance. The recapture of Manila was found to be both sloppy and costly. Hanson, himself a military historian and a scholar of the classics, noted that Okinawa was the worst of all amphibious operations with 50,000 allied casualties. It was carried out without any contingency plan to destroy Japanese kamikazes (the suicide bombers of their day) that killed over 5,000 American seamen in the South Pacific.

Admiral King resisted the life-saving naval convoy system and unnecessarily exposed and sacrificed American merchant ships and thousands of American seamen to enemy torpedoes and aircraft; while “Bull” Halsey almost lost his entire naval fleet to a storm, the intensity of which was known well ahead of time.

In the air war, unescorted daylight bombings over Europe proved to be a disaster, but our military leaders continued them anyway.

And in May 1945, US troops’ plundered a Nazi “gold train” heading from Hungary to Germany and carrying gold, silver, china, jewels, paintings and carpets stolen from Hungarian Jews. (The US has since paid $25.5M in compensation to survivors of the Holocaust).

And in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Europe nearly starved to death during that first winter of 1945-1946 due to poor Allied planning. Millions were on the road in mass exoduses. We spent billions destroying Nazi Germany, and then spent billions rebuilding it, and repairing the devastation it had wrought on its neighbors.

Our erstwhile allies in Yugoslavia and Greece turned out to be hard-core Communists. It didn’t take long for America to realize that the guerrillas in the mountains of Europe whom we had idolized as “partisans”, fought as much for Communism as against fascism, but they had no intention of bringing democracy to their newly-liberated countries.

Well, we are told, unlike Iraq, at least there was a clear-cut long-range strategy for success in post-war Europe.

Really? The Marshall Plan was brilliant, but Yalta’s terrible miscalculations cost us most of Europe. After fighting a war to liberate Europe from the Nazis, we ended up watching Eastern Europe fall to the Communists. That was the same year we started placing former Luftwaffe pilots into American jets over Europe to protect the rest of the continent from a Red Army that was carried westward in our GM trucks.

We put Nazis on trial for war crimes, even as we invited their scientists to our shores to match their counterparts in the Soviet Union who were building even more lethal weapons to destroy us.

And the follies of war continued into the Cold War era. Our utopian idea of a global UN immediately deteriorated into vetoes in the Security Council by Stalinists and Maoists, and we watched silently as former colonial Arab states gained their independence and collectively ganged up on Israel and the survivors of the Holocaust in the General Assembly.

But we called it a “forward-looking strategy” nevertheless.

As the 1980s rolled around, we decided to arm the Afghan mujihadeen as a way to humiliate Russia in Afghanistan, but as we were doing so, we failed to recognize that their leaders were traveling the length and breadth of America raising funds and referring to us in the very same terms that they referred to the soon-to-be-vanquished Russians – infidels, decadent and weak. But we gave them stinger missiles anyway without any consideration that, one day, there was a better than even chance that they would turn those missiles against us. And guess what? They did.

Then, we provided the Saudis with AWACs and other sophisticated high tech equipment (as if they really needed it). Now, we are told that al Qaeda – the successor of the Afghan mujihadeen – intends to assassinate the Saudi royal family, conduct a coup d’etat, acquire the world’s largest oil reserves, and protect themselves with the best equipment that American technology has ever produced.

And yet, despite it all, our military and political leaders thought, by and large, that they had done a pretty good job in defending our freedom – and they did……… maybe it’s time to cut the Bush administration a little slack when it comes to the liberation of Iraq. After all, its blunders pale in comparable to those committed by previous governments over the past half-century.

But more importantly, in the end, then as now, for all the tactical and strategic errors that were committed, America triumphed. Despite all the cheap-shots, posturing and anti-Americanism, the now-freed peoples of France, Germany, Japan, Eastern Europe, Korea, the Balkans, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan, and Iraq owe a debt of gratitude to thousands of dead American soldiers whose silent graves dot the countryside from the green fields of France to the golden sands of Mesopotamia……..soldiers who may, on rare occasions, have done some pretty terrible even stupid things in some pretty horrible places like the Ardenne Forest, Tarawa, Buchenwald, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chosun, Hue, Panama City, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and Fallujah, but who, nevertheless, battled and defeated Nazis, militarists, Communists, medieval Islamic fascists and rogue tyrants so that millions of other people might have the freedom that the rest of us lesser folk too often take for granted.

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