HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 1

HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 1 - Why Misfortune THIS...

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Unformatted text preview: Why Misfortune? ' THIS BOOK IS ABOUT a particular kind of failure—failure in battle. Much of the literature dealing with this subject has tended to oversimplify what is in reality a complex and complicated phenomenon. Therefore. to ex- plain how and why such failures occur we must begin by questioning some popular and much-cherished misconceptions. “All battles,“ John Keegan has remarked, “are in some degree . . . dis- asters."t It is certainly true that every battle, and particularly every lost battle, looks like a disaster; but disaster is not a term that translates easily from the civil world to the military one. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that men in uniform are trained to function efficiently and efi‘ectively in an environment marked by danger and the imminent prospect of death—that is to say, to do their job in exactly those conditions that characterize civil disasters. Everyone in uniform lives with what has per- ceptiver been called “the knowable possibility of disaster.”2 So we do not expect sudden shocks to have the same paralyzing effect in the world of the soldier as they do in the world of the civilian. More important, war is a oontest between two sides, and once a battle begins each party will do its level best to make a disaster occur by breaking the enemy’s physical strength and destroying his mental resilience. Thus in every military setback or defeat there is an interplay between adversaries that is never present in the world of civil disasters. A tire will nor "react" to the actions of the men who are trying to put it out in a way that makes their task more difficult. An enemy will do exactly that. This makes war a very special kind of “disaster environment." I 2 Military Misfortunes At a superficial level, military setbacks do seem to bear comparison with civil disasters insofar as they come in different shapes and sizes and have consequences of different magnitudes. An operation may fail with small loss of life and be only a minor setback, as with the abortive Dakar expedition undertaken by de Gaulle’s Free French forces in 1940. On the other hand. an operation may fail with relatively small loss and yet repre- sent a major setback, as happened in the summer of 1940 when Britain lost the campaign in Norway. At a higher level of magnitude, the surren- der of Singapore in February 1942 was both a big loss and a major set- back—as was General Friedrich von Paulus's surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad a year later. And, on an altogether different plane, the fall of France in June 1940 was nothing less than a catastrophe. Thinking this way, it is all too easy to perceive military setbacks as part of a progression from minor embarrassment to mortal failure. However, regarding the problem as a matter of degree is of no help in explaining why these setbacks occur. It could be that the size of the setback is a function of the aggregation of adverse factors: The more that goes wrong, the greater the degree of failure. But we could just as well assume that major failures are born of major errors: The bigger the stumble, the harder the fall. Rough—and—ready categorizing of this sort, which differen~ tiates defeats according to their magnitude, reflects their consequences but does nothing to explain their causes. The very notion of defeat-ostensibly the touchstone of failure—can be just as big an obstacle to understanding as disaster. For one thing, as the above examples suggest, the only feature many defeats have in common is their outcome. Also, defeat is not the only alternative to vicrory. Between these two poles lies the middle ground of missed opportunity—what Field Marshal Erich von Manstein called the “lost victories.’ ’3 By making the con» cept of failure our central concern, we can incorporate into our analysis not merely battles lost but also hatdes that were not won. Understanding these is every bit as important to any military organization as understanding its defeats. Although military failure commonly results in defeat, not all defeats are equally worthy of study. Some are evidently the consequence of facing overwhelming odds; in such circumstances the only thing to be done is to try to exercise some form of damage limitation. Others can be the result of a stroke of blind chance. Carl von Clausewitz acknowledged this possibility in his classic work 07: War: “No other human activity," he declared, “is so continuously or universally bound up with chance."“ Oth- ers may be the inescapable consequence of straightforward incompe- tence. The historian Guy Chapman found plenty of that in his inquiry Why Misfortune? 3 into the causes of the fall of France in 194-0: “There was hesitation, there was indecision, there was sheer bloody funk at the highest level, among ministers, politicians, generals, civil service chiefs.” Once we have identi- fied the battles that fall into these categories, little benefit is to be gained from further Study—they have yielded up their secret, such as it is. However, not all military failures fall into these convenient categories. Some are defeats, and Others are the “lost victories” to which We have referred. They seem to share certain common characteriStics that raise important questions about the nature and causes of military failure. Most striking is the fact that when they occur, no one individual is obviously to blame. Field Marshal Joseph jofi're was fond of saying that he did not know whether he was responsible for the victory on the Marne in Sep- tember 1914, but he knew one thing—if the battle had been lost, it would have been he who lost it.‘6 True military “misfortunes"—-as we define them—can never be justly laid at the door of any one commander. They are failures of the organization, not of the individual. The other thing the failures we shall examine have in common is their apparently puzzling nature. Although something has clearly gone wrong, it is hard to see what; rather, it seems that fortune—evenly balanccd be- tween both sides at the outsetmhas turned againSt one side and favored the other. These are the occasions when it Seems that the outcome of the battle depended at leasr as much on one side’s mishandling of the situation as on the other's skill in exploiting a position of superiority. Competent professionals have failed in their task, for reasons that are net immediately apparent. In truth, this is another side of the same coin: The causes of organizational failure in the military world are not easy to discern. Our choice of tertninoltigy, then, is both an indication of the complex— ity of military failure and an echo of the cry of bewilderment that so often greets it. It is a cry uttered as often by civilians as by soldiers. “What has happened at Chernobyl ,“ Pravda remarked three weeks after the dou- ble steam-hydrogen explosion at the Soviet nuclear reactor in May 1986, “is of course a great misfortune.”I ‘ u _ . _ '. ; whim-didn‘t”! Mia-mam 'I" will“ ash and». " '3“! WW 1w wim mfiwfilfi' mammal MHWU‘“ ambu- mwiufiwmvfl‘m Whit-W mumpmmm 13p?!“ mawdwww " ' 45 H --hd1ufim!i.m; mummy“; w an w-d—mfinmwnww mmmm «mm-wimmymtyai: < ifiumdwmtfin'W1tmi na' 1W" ' lig'n' mam {aim . ‘ gm” r m.,wflgfiu%dmm-qu. km" . - I . d amt”. dam ' dish; "-u‘gfiaw _ hm I at} M‘# -' h: m-M'mfl Wlhwgh ‘ _ fii' '-' v-.mam, wéfifijm, nah} mlmfi_ 'I x... “KW” hi” ...
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HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 1 - Why Misfortune THIS...

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