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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.
Bismarck, luck and unlearned lessons of war
by Ken Feltman
Providence protects fools, drunkards, children and the United States of America.
- Chancellor Otto von Bismarck
The United States became the world's preeminent power through hard work, ingenuity ? and good luck. Sometimes we forget the part about the luck. But good fortune has been evident throughout American history and includes navigable rivers, favorable weather, productive farmland, hard-working immigrants and plentiful resources. The good luck has extended to war and was never so evident as in World War II. After that, the good luck seemed to run out for the U.S. and the world is worse off because of it.
The devastating Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor shocked the United States into war. Following the attack, Japan had a chance to drive the U.S. fleet back to the West Coast. Instead, Japanese forces swept up British, Dutch and American possessions in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Australia and India were increasingly isolated.
Those Japanese successes disguised American good fortune. Before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and most other nations retained a battleship mindset, a remnant of the 19th century and World War I. Apparently, American military commanders debated but did not apply an important lesson of the First World War: Combining air and naval power was the future. The Japanese, studying the same recent history, learned different lessons and applied them at Pearl Harbor with history's first aircraft carrier strike. Floating airfields deliver airplanes directly to the battle.
Japan started the war with 10 aircraft carriers, the world?s largest fleet. The U.S. had six carriers, three in the Pacific. Japan expected to destroy these carriers at Pearl Harbor. But their pre-attack intelligence was faulty. A little bit of good luck spared the U.S. a knock-out blow. The three aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were not in Pearl Harbor. One was moored at San Diego, where it had just finished an overhaul, and two were at sea.
The six months after Pearl Harbor were some of the bleakest and most uncertain in modern times. Especially in Europe, nations waited to learn whether the United States could mobilize to respond to the twin perils of imperial Japan?s brutal aggression and Nazi Germany?s equally brutal expansion. Believing that the U.S. soon would be out of the Asian war and unable to bring sufficient forces to Europe in time to stop the Nazis, diplomats from neutral and uninvolved countries rushed to Berlin and Tokyo to reach whatever secret understandings were possible.
The government is here to help you?
Because Radnor's symbol is the dragon, we are always on the watch for dragon sightings and such. Recently, an item from a Welsh village, coincidentally not too far from the original village of Radnor, made us marvel that there is so little that needs doing by government in that part of Britain.
Seems that the makers of Welsh Dragon Sausages of Crickhowell, Powys, Wales, could face legal action if they do not specify that no dragon meat is used in their sausages. The package specifies that leeks and pork chili are the primary ingredients.
'I don't think any of our customers actually believe that we use dragon meat,' deadpanned Jon Carthew, the sausage producer. The dragon has been the symbol of the people today called Welsh since the Roman Empire ruled Britain and can be found on (but not in) thousands of products marketed in Wales. Carthew said that he had received no complaints about the absence of real dragon meat.
Still, government can't be too careful.
Luck intervened again: Japan's bold and daring attack was followed by caution. The Japanese did not seek out and sink the American aircraft carriers at sea. Nor did the Japanese follow up by wiping out the vital fuel tanks at Pearl Harbor. Destruction of those tanks, a relatively simple mission, would have forced the Pacific Fleet back to the West Coast. Japan would have been the unchallenged naval force throughout the Pacific. Instead, the Japanese held back. Their cautiousness proved to be their undoing. As is often the case in war, the greater risk is not doing the wrong thing. Even the wrong thing engages and stresses the enemy. The greater risk is in doing nothing.
Hitler realized what most did not: Japan?s failure to drive the Americans out of the Pacific changed the entire equation of the European war as well. With superior shipbuilding and weapons-manufacturing facilities, the U.S. could launch and sustain a war of attrition in the Pacific. That meant that American troops would soon be available to fight in Europe. Time worked against Germany. The best-trained German troops were mired in a cold Russian winter and Hitler needed to force the Soviets out of the war to concentrate on holding gains elsewhere. He chose a strategy that might have led to a quick Soviet surrender but instead led to the largest and bloodiest battle in history and to German defeat at Stalingrad. So the argument can be made that the Japanese doomed not only themselves but also the Germans when they failed to capitalize on their original success at Pearl Harbor.
The Japanese high command soon realized the difficulty of their position and attempted to regain the advantage. Japan planned to take the Central Pacific island of Midway. With the crippling of Pearl Harbor, Midway became the key to American operations throughout the Pacific. Relentlessly, methodically, Japan?s superior forces prepared for the anticipated victory at Midway.
Fog over Midway
Then, luck intervened once again: Six months after Pearl Harbor, in foggy June skies, the decisive Battle of Midway began and everything changed. Japanese planes could not find their targets. Skilled use of communications by the Americans kept the smaller and more vulnerable U.S. fleet out of harm?s way until a break in the fog came at exactly the right time and the U.S. fighters swooped down on the Japanese fleet. Better intelligence, a sounder strategy, superior communications, plus Bismarck?s dose of good luck on a foggy day, changed the course of history.
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Improbably, the U.S. emerged victorious at Midway. Japan could no longer expect to defeat or stalemate the U.S. Slowly, inevitably, yet at great cost, the forces of the United States crept across the Pacific, island by island, toward Japan. Nothing could stop the crawling advance but Japan extracted a great price in blood for each island liberated.
America's primary efforts could be concentrated in Europe, where only the United Kingdom was left, clinging by fingernails, against the Nazi expansion. Finally, just as the Nazis were collapsing in total defeat, expatriate German scientists that the Nazis would have killed helped the United States develop a horrible weapon. War-weary Americans could not stomach the idea of an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Too many more American lives would be sacrificed. But the U.S. could not negotiate a peace with an enemy that declared its intention to fight to the death. The end came when that awful weapon destroyed much of two Japanese cities. A tenacious Japan submitted to unconditional surrender.
The United States had fought two all-out wars and prevailed in both. As a result, the United States became the great naval and air power. An idea took hold in American military circles that the United States had not only learned the lessons of World War I but had been a fast learner in World War II, applying lessons quickly at the tactical level. That may be an incorrect assessment.
Every war brings lessons. Every nation learns from previous wars. The French and the Germans learned lessons from World War I. The French learned that the Germans seldom breached French defenses. France had been overrun by German forces only where there were no defenses to slow the invader?s advance. The French, therefore, created the Maginot line to slow down future attackers.
The Germans learned from the new French emphasis on defense that a French attack was unlikely so they concentrated on offensive planning at the expense of a defense that they assumed would not be needed. The Germans realized that their attack could be even more successful if it moved quickly and avoided hostilities until well beyond the front lines. The blitzkrieg allowed German forces to speed around a Maginot line made obsolete even before it was tested in battle.
Exceptional at applying lessons learned to offensive strategy, the Germans were less gifted in defensive warfare. As they were driven back toward Berlin and defeat, they failed to defend their home territory. Instead, they launched a final offensive thrust, the Battle of the Bulge, which bled away precious resources. Finally spent, the offense sputtered. The Allies licked their wounds from that last German outburst and overran Germany.
British and American advances in gathering and applying intelligence, and that bit of good fortune here and there, gave the Allies just enough strength to push back and buy time. Then, three Allied advantages combined: the larger U.S. population, technological innovation and American munitions-manufacturing speed. The war of attrition overcame the unstoppable force.
Learning about innovations
A measure of success throughout military history has been speed - not the speed of armies across terrain but the speed at which the troops in the front lines learn about innovations developed elsewhere by friendly or enemy troops confronting the same situation. That speed involves flexibility in the command structure so that the innovations can flow through to other units. Then, those units need not suffer the losses required to learn the lessons independently.
What does this mean for the United States? The U.S. has not been very flexible in bringing adaptations through the command structure. In fact, one weapon shows how poorly the U.S. has adapted.
The AK-47 transformed the very nature of warfare from an emphasis on large, coordinated attacks to small, quick strikes. The U.S. military establishment first resisted, then tried to copy the AK-47. The initial American version was finicky, more likely to jam. In Vietnam, U.S. forces sometimes abandoned their M-16s and grabbed the AK-47s from fallen adversaries.
Small, deadly, rugged and cheap, the AK-47 became the weapon of choice for over 50 national armies, countless terrorist bands, bandits, insurgents, gangs, drug lords and dictators. Some national flags and currencies display it. Ubiquitous in much of Africa, the Middle East and in crime-infested urban centers, the AK-47 is readily available everywhere, from American inner-cities to Latin American jungles, from South Sea pirate ships to the mountainous retreats of Pakistan.
The AK-47 is named for the Russian Second World War veteran who invented it (Mikhail Kalashnikov) and the year it was first mass produced (1947). It has become the deadliest weapon in world history, killing about 250,000 to 500,000 people annually, all over the world.
Millions of AK-47s, in various models, have been produced and exported by Russia, China, North Korea and former Soviet-bloc countries. Many other nations also make and export it.
Formerly costing as little as $50 in Iraq, new and collapsible models now bring $400 to over $1000 in the bazaars and on the black market. Some models - such as the one carried by Osama bin Laden - go for up to $2000.
The weapons market in Iraq is brisk and resupplied daily. Thousands of weapons are sold on the black market by Iraqi soldiers and police. Often within days of being issued a weapon, an Iraqi will sell it for an amount equal to three to nine months' pay.
A front-page December 10 New York Times article may have relied on an advance copy of this report that was sent to media outlets in November.
The AK-47 made a soldier of any dissident and freedom fighters of any gang. The U.S. was late to understand that nuclear weapons, with their doomsday threat, were becoming impractical in a world shocked by the images from Japan and frightened by the Cold War.
Carriers and missiles had no answer for armed fighters who emerged from their neighborhoods, schools and places of work to strike before fading back into shops, streets and homes. The U.S. has the power to do the unthinkable - level the towns and cities that harbor terrorists - but the U.S. cannot bring itself to do the unthinkable. The AK-47 has stalemated the most powerful weapons in the world.
Vietnam should have taught the lesson that superpowers that cannot bring their super and powerful weapons to the battlefield are unprepared for asymmetric warfare - the warfare of small, loosely organized bands armed with the most efficient killing weapon yet devised. But after World War II, the generals and admirals wanted bigger and more powerful weapons. While building those ever-more-awesome weapons, the U.S. military-industrial complex seemed to stop learning. Bismarck?s luck seemed to run out.
Defeat disguised as negotiation
Basically, wars end in one of three ways: Victory, stalemate or negotiation. Victory takes different forms, from one side crushing the other into unconditional surrender, to one side abandoning the field, to intervention by other countries. Stalemate is often the strategy of the attacked: The invader must win or, ultimately, go home with the appearance (if not the fact) of defeat. The defender wants to survive.
Most wars end with negotiated terms. The lessons learned - or that should have been learned - by the United States since the Second World War should have led us to want to negotiate quickly and finally in Iraq. Unequipped to win unless we were willing to destroy countless civilian neighborhoods to eliminate the AK-47 carrying insurgents, the U.S. risked defeat when we failed to negotiate. Now, we have fewer choices. We may need to retreat from the field, as we did in Vietnam.
Ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's greater failure may not be that he was unable to develop a way to win in Iraq. His greater failure may be that he lost his battle to change the U.S. military to be able to fight the new type war. The generals and admirals, enamored of their powerful weapons, joined with the makers of those huge weapons. They defeated Rumsfeld. Caught between a White House that did not want to send more troops to Iraq, and a military skewed toward large weapons systems, Rumsfeld went to war with the army he had, not the army best suited to the job.
The U.S. has not learned how to lose. But the U.S. is getting into wars that it is not equipped to win. Then, when American forces cannot push toward victory, the tendency is to deny and delay. Delay leads to slow, draining defeat or, ultimately, to withdrawal that is really defeat disguised as negotiation.
Today in Iraq, Gulliver is tied down by people who fight like the rag-tag army that Great Britain once despised. That army did not follow the conventions of war. Its sneaky soldiers struck, then faded into the woods. How did the U.S. forget the lesson of the Continental Army commanded by George Washington?
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