Victor Davis Hanson
One post-WWII problem has been the U.S. military’s effective tactical record that has not resulted in achieving strategic resolution.
After MacArthur had unwisely and rashly raced far northward into abject disaster, amid the wider expanses of North Korea after the incredible victory of Inchon in September 1950—ever closer to the Chinese border, ever colder as winter set in, ever more ground to cover and occupy, ever longer supply lines, ever more faulty intelligence about Chinese designs—Matthew Ridgway’s rebuilt and ascendent U.S. military by mid-1951 understandably chose to stay near the 38th parallel. He paused permanently even when the U.S. had already inflicted perhaps a million casualties on Chinese and North Korean troops, had finally achieved air superiority, and was bombing enemy supply lines far to the north at will. In 1950 MacArthur’s ambition was too rash; in 1951 a victorious Ridgway’s consolidation perhaps too cautious. The recent years of North Korean aggression and threats even to the U.S. homeland are a legacy of not finishing the liberation of Korea when there was perhaps a moment of opportunity.
As far as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, U.S. troops were able to fight well, even on the enemy’s terms and not our own, where mass firepower, bombing, and artillery strikes were near always determinative. Yet our eventual tactical success in fighting at a disadvantage amid back alleys or jungles, while “nation building” was mostly for naught, given strategic ineptitude.
Did we really know what exactly the U.S. wished to achieve in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001? The removal of terrorist threats to the U.S.? To regional stability? To the Western world?
Were we simply to destroy the threat, leave, and occasionally bomb any successor who threatened us, a sort of strategic mowing the lawn on occasion?
How did we go from removing Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in a matter of weeks to decades of rebuilding the cities of Iraq and Afghanistan, and creating a Westernized democratic elite without popular support and often utterly corrupt?
How did we descend from emasculating al-Qaeda to waving pride flags and painting George Floyd murals in defeat in a premodern Islamic Afghanistan? And did such Middle East fixations distract us from existential threats from China, or regional threats from Iran, or from the changing nature of Putin’s Russia, or from a virtual invasion on southern border, calibrated in envy, spite, and self-interest by socialists in Mexico City?
In terms of generalship at the highest levels, the U.S. has also suffered a mixed record.
It took thousands of Union dead to go through the mediocrities of generals Burnside, Halleck, Hooker, McClellan, and Pope until the emergence of the scruffy, reportedly hard drinking. and authentic military genius U.S. Grant and his twin, the seemingly manic-depressive, erratic, but brilliant grand strategist William T. Sherman. The Confederates suffered the same pathology in promoting a General Hood, Beauregard, and Bragg.
It is hard to fathom why and how World War II generals like Lucas, Fredendall (who beguiled Ike), or Buckner were put in charge of entire theater or invasion commands. Courtney Hodges and Omar Bradley assumed their respective top commands not on the basis of brilliance or singular insight or command dynamism in the field, but by being “steady” and “reliable” and “team-players”—in contrast to maverick, superb generals like George Patton, who promoted the army’s best division and corps commanders on the basis of merit.
Often, it is the late appearance of sometimes gruff and off-putting generals that have saved the military. Sherman surely did by taking Atlanta in September 1864, and then running wild through the heart of Georgia and the Carolinas as he humiliated the plantation class and destroyed vital Confederate infrastructure. Yet he detested the media, loathed the secretary of war, and felt the war department was run by clueless clerks.
Matthew Ridgway saved the Korean campaign, although MacArthur undercut him at every turn. The thrice-married eccentric may have been America’s greatest but least appreciated soldier. The array of incompetents who were put in charge of the entire Iraq effort on the ground from Tommy Franks until the appointment of the successful and competent David Petraeus makes one weep.
Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was a good man who should have never been in charge of the Okinawa campaign, or at least should have been relieved once Marines hit the Shuri line. Leslie McNair and John C.H. Lee, in many ways overly confident but fine men, did a lot of damage in the European theater, and yet were never removed (McNair was killed by friendly bombing).
We should remember in our next war that those who lead us at the outbreak will not be there at the end. And success will often hinge on how quickly we learn that all the traits that doom the careers of forgotten geniuses in peacetime are precisely what we so critically need in war.
The few generals remaining who insist on military efficacy as the sole criterion of the armed forces and are punished for their indifference to wokism are now in the shadows; the incompetent yes-men and careerists are more likely at the top rungs of the Pentagon. But come a war over Taiwan or a nightmare arising from Ukraine, it will be these “failures” who provide our deliverance.
Such it is with democracies who can do without their loner and maverick Themistocleses and Scipio Aemlianuses—but only after they have saved the state.