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Book Review 204: Military Misfortunes

July 24, 2011 - Harry Eagar
MILITARY ,MISFORTUNES: The Anatomy of Failure in War, by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch. 302 pages. Free Press paperback, $15

”Military Misfortunes” is, in one way, a celebration of the aspect of the American military that the late David Hackworth found most reprehensible: the “no-fault” army. Eliot Cohen and John Gooch reject the great man theory in favor of organization and management.

They come very close to saying that a well-organized, well-managed army will succeed, no matter the odds. And they explicitly do say that military misfortunes (which are more honestly called defeats) are not “the sole responsibility of any single individual, not even the military commander.”

If they were going to convince anyone of that by means of case studies, they met disastrous misfortune by choosing as one of their five examples the defeat of the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea in 1950. That defeat was the responsibility of a single man, Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur, the worst general in the history of the United States (with the possible exception of some of the amateur militia generals of the Civil War).

MacArthur remains the only American general to have maneuvered his troops into a “march of death.” He did it twice.

There are some very odd conclusions in the other case studies as well. No one would gainsay that a well-thought out, well-managed military is a good idea. On the other hand, crowing over defeating a ramshackle, mismanaged, crazy military, as Americans did over Saddam Hussein's joke army in Gulf War I, suggests an inability to recognize either good or bad management, and Cohen and Gooch are as guilty of this as the average yahoo at the VFW.

The oddest – after the completely wrongheaded treatment of MacArthur – is the conclusion concerning the “strange defeat” of the French army in 1940;

While the French had the wrong sort of weapons, the wrong sort of generals and the wrong strategy, the defeat was still strange because the French did not fight. They might not have been capable of defeating the Germans, but the collapse in little more than a week needs explaining. Gooch (who wrote this chapter) hardly tries.

And, given his focus on military organization, he completely neglects morale, except in the summation, where he dismisses its importance. He rejects the argument, made elsewhere, that the army was subverted by the left, noting that the sabotage in the factories was limited.

Even if it had been extensive, sabotage in factories could not have been a factor in a war that was over in two weeks. Nor were there communists in government, and certainly not in the officer corps. No, the failure of nerve is elsewhere to be sought, on the right, not the left. Gooch does not so much as mention it.

The fact is that large sections of the officer corps and of leading sectors of the country had no desire to fight for the republic, which they despised. (Just as the expectation and fear of the Americans that Iraqis would fight for Saddam was misplaced.) Significant fractions of the French population – it is questionable whether it could be called a nation – preferred German occupation to Socialist government, just as in Italy, the Catholic church preferred fascism to democracy.

The other case studies are Gallipoli, the antisubmarine failure of the U.S. Navy in 1942 and Israel's experience in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Again, if Gooch and Cohen want to make the point that organizations, not men, create misfortunes, the examples are ill-chosen. At Gallipoli, there were mistakes aplenty, but any officer who looked on those sere hills ought to have thought of all the past battles where the fighting men were desperate for water and made it a first priority to see that it did not happen here. No one in the British Army paid more than sketchy attention to this, however, suggesting a deep incompetence and stupidity that would have been proof against even a much better organized system.

This book was published in 1990, and the paperback edition of 2006 includes a new afterword briefly discussing the failures (they were not misfortunes) of the American army in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gooch and Cohen get off on the wrong foot here by declaring that the American military is the most powerful and competent the world has ever known.”

Powerful it is, and often rescued from its incompetence by the ability of steam hammers to crack walnuts. But at its high levels, both civilian and uniformed, the American military has proven itself incompetent in almost every fighting occasion since 1951. The authors themselves note, without any evident sense of the incongruity, that they excluded Vietnam from their candidate list of misfortunes because it would have deserved a book in itself.

One of their themes is failure to learn, but they show no awareness of how little the Americans learned from 1980 on in Iran, Libya, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia, Kuwait. Everywhere Americans used their weapons, they performed abysmally, nowhere more so than in Grenada.

But instead of sacking the generals, they awarded themselves heaps of medals and pretended that because the most powerful military force in history had managed (though only just) to prevail over 600 construction workers, all was well.

Gooch and Cohen's summary of the defeat in Iraq packs a lot of misconceptions in a few paragraphs, but to take just one point, it was obvious in Gulf War I that the American army was deficient in infantry. Neither the civilian nor the military high command was able or willing to acknowledge this, and even after the complete failure of American policy in Iraq, which was fundamentally due to a political misconception that, however, might have been at least partly made good by a real occupation of the country following the destruction of the old order-keeping structure, no one in the American high command seems to realize this.

On an unconscious level, theresort to “surges” show that infantry was the answer, and a lot of the infantrymen who served in Afghanistan and Iraq understand what they accomplished in limited areas; but both the high military command and the political command (both Bush and Obama) have denied the value of infantry. The US Army has been nearly destroyed by this obtuseness, to the extent that, earlier this year, when political policy (rightly) determined that it was in American interest to depose Khadafy, the “most powerful and competent” military organization in history was afraid to act.


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