HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 2

HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 2 - 2 Understanding...

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Unformatted text preview: 2 Understanding Disaster INTRODUCTION WE SHALL BEGIN our. EXPLORATION of military misfortune by looking at the five explanations most commonly offered by historians trying to ac- count for defeat and disaSter on the field of battle. As we look at each one in turn, we shall see that its deficiencies outweigh its merits—often considerably. First, to illustrate the difficulties that have beset attempts to find convincing general explanations for major setbacks in the world of arms, we shall look at one of the greatest military conundrums of the twentieth century: the failure of Allied—especially British—commanders to achieve victory on the Western Front between 1915 and 1917, despite their prodigal expenditure of manpower and munitions. Following this, we shall turn aside briefly from battles and battlefields to look at general explanations that have been offered to account for civil disaSters and business failures. Analysts of civil—as opposed to military— failures have recently begun to look at their subject from a new perspec- tive: how organizatioris can misfunction in unintended and unexpected ways. With this new perspective in mind, the final section of this chapter will develoP a general theory of military misfortune and lay out a taxon- omy of five types of military failure. 5 6 Military Misfortunes EXPLANATIONS AND MISAPPREHENSIONS “The Man in the Dock” The temptation to explain military failure in terms of human error is a characteristic feature of much of the literature of defeat in battle. Accord- ing to this view, catastrophe occurs because one man—almost invariably the commanderucommits unpardonable errors of judgment. At first sight, the idea that a solitary, highly placed individual can, by his own incompetence and stupidity, create a military disaster is deceptively attrac- tive. It is at one with the traditional idea that a commander carries the responsibility for everything that happens in—and therefore to—his com- mand; it is the counterpart to the picture of the heroic leader, handsomely rewarded for ushering his forces to victory; and it can be legitimated by appealing to history. The most superficial acquaintance with the past quickly yields a rich crop of professional incompetents who led or ordered their followers into the jaws of disaster in pursuit of what hindsight shows to have been an unlikely success, or who simply lacked the intellectual grasp to understand the true nature of their situation. In the age of heroic leaders, any individual commander-combining, as he often did, both military and political authority—was in an ideal posi- tion to bring about a military disaster entirely unaided. In 1302 Robert of Courtrai’s stupidity in ordering a cavalry charge across entirely unsuitable ground at the Battle of Courtrai met the fate it richly deserved; and when King Henry VI of France, lured into attacking the English at Agincourt in 1415, launched his heavily armored men-at~arms in tight-packed for- mations. they were unable to fight properly and fell easy victims to their more mobile opponents.‘ Later leaders failed just as dismally. When Doc— tor William Brydon rode into jalalabad in 1842, the lone survivor of a force of 4,500 fighting men and 12,000 camp followers who had begun the retreat from Kabul in Afghanistan, his lucky escape simply magnified the extent of General john Elphinstone’s inadequacies.2 Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler, cautiously trying net to provoke sepoy mutineers who had occupied Cawnpore in 185 7, gave them time and opportunity to massacre the white women and children they held captive; and in 18 79 General Lord Chelmsford, rather too casual in his attitude to the Zulus, crashed to defeat at Isandhlwana.a Only three years earlier, George Arm- strong Custer's decision to attack the Sioux encampment on the Little Big Horn had induced a disaster of cinematic proportions. Misfortunes of this kind, which occur at the tactical level and are local- ized in scope, may often properly be laid at the door of individuals. But Understanding Disaster 7 there is a very great difference between the degree of control exercised by a Napoleon, who could oversee a whole battlefield and direcrly influ- ence what was happening on it, and a modern military leader in charge of a campaign, much farther from events and vulnerable to more varied forces as his command undertakes a great and protracted effort. In a word, the modern commander’s'world is far more complex than that of his dashing predecessor. His decisions are affected by the perceptions, demands, and requirements of others. and his actions do little more than shape the tasks to be carried out by his many subordinates.‘ Since 1370 a commander has seldom if ever been able to survey a whole battlefield from a single spot; and in any case he has had little opportunity—although sometimes a considerable inclination—to try. For the modern commander is much more akin to the managing director of a large conglomerate enterprise than ever he is to the warrior chief of old. He has become the head of a complex military organization, whose many branches he must oversee and on whose cooperation, assistance, and sup- port he depends for his success. As the size and complexity of military forces have increased, the business of war has developed an organizational dimension that can make a mighty contribution to triumphF—or to trag- edy. Hitherto, the role of this organizational dimension of war in explain- ing military performance has been strangely neglected. We shall return to it later—indeed, it will form one of the major themes of this book. For now we simply need to note its looming presence. And yet the urge to find, excoriate, judge. and sentence culpable indi- viduals has led contemporaries as well as historians to blame men for very much more than the loss of a battle over which they exercised a tolerable degree of control. When a royal commission Was convened in 191? to explain the failure of the Gallipoli campaign two years earlier, Field Mar- shal Lord Kitchener, who had been secretary of state for war at the time, was dead. A bevy of soldiers and politicians appeared for questioning, and almost to a man they blamed Kitchener for having made the decision to undertake the campaign in the first place—thereby conveniently forget— ting that it had been a communal choice.’ Some years later, the congres- sional inquiry into the disaster at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 put the men on the spot—Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and lieutenant Gen» eral Walter C. Short—in the dock. Recently an attempt has been made to get bOth men off the hook by hanging two more admirals—Harold R. Stark and Richmond Kelly Turner—on it.‘5 The urge to blame military misfortunes on individuals runs as deep as the inclination to blame human error for civil disasters. “Criminalizing” military misfortune in this way by arraigning a guilty 8 Military Misfortunes party serves an important military function; but as an explanation of fail- ure it is really little more than a concealed confession of perplexity. Yet even those who have perceived its limitations have not been able to re- place it with any more sophisticated explanation. Indeed, they have been unable to go much beyond postulating the existence of “a fatal conjunc— tion of circumstances; a devil’s brew of incompetence, unpreparedness, mistaken and inappropriate tactics, a brash underestimating of the enemy, a difficult terrain, raw recruits, treacherous opponents, diplomatic hin- drancc and bone-headed leadership.” This is no more than a cry of de- spair masquerading as an explanation. “The Man on the Couch" Are the grievous faults that soldiers sometimes exhibit due to something more—and more complex—than individual incompetence and dimwittecl- ness? Are the causes of military misfortune to be foundin some collective way of thinking, which all generals share and for which they cannot be held to blame? This is certainly the opinion of the psychologist Norman Dixon. “Stupidity does not explain the behavior of these generals,” he writes of Field Marshal Douglas Haig and his subordinates in World So great was their fear of loss of self-esteem, and so imperative their need for social approval, that they could resort to tactics beyond the reach of any sel ~respecting “donkey.” From their shameless self~ interest, lack of loyalty to their subordinates and apparent indifference to the verdict of posterity, a picture emerges of personalities deficient in something other than intellectual acumen.It Casting his eye over a formidable collection of military incompetents, Dixon finds that the generals who fail all exhibit the same psychological characreristics. They are passive and courteous, obsrinate and rigid, ambi- tions and insensitive. In short, they are all psychological cripples—walking wounded who bear no visible scars. If such men were distributed at random across the command posts of the military world, disaster would be likely enough for us to shudder in apprehension. But things are much worse than that. The people who get to the top do so because they possess certain institutionally desirable characteristics: They are cautious, they adhere to rules and regulations, they respect and accept authority, they obey their superiors, and they regard discipline and submission to authority as the highest virtues. TWenty- five or thirty years spent gaining promotion simply accentuate these char- Underscanding Disaster 9 acteristics, so that by the time a soldier teaches the rep of the tree he lacks the very qualities of flexibility. imaginativeness, and adventurousness he needs in order to exercise command effectively. Here, then, lies the heart of the problem, the inevitability of disaster: “Authoritarianism, itself so damaging to military endeavour, will actually predispose an individual towards entering upon tbs very career wberer'n bis re- stricted personahy can wreak tbs most boost. [Dixon's italics].“9 It is, as Dixon says, like learning that only people with Parkinson's disease decide to become eye surgeons. - It remains only for Dixon to fit the last piece of the jigsaw into place. The soldier who has reached the top is anal-retentive. The evidence for this lies nor merely in associated traits of character and their ineluctable consequences, such as slowness to accept unexpected information and difficulty in controlling aggressive impulses, but in the world the anal- obsessive general creates. Whether by accident or design, the events of Third Ypres [in 1917]—the enormous release of destructive energy, the churning up of ground until the overlapping craters coalesced into one great reeking swamp, and the expulsion into this mass of more and yet more “faecal” bodieswconstitutes the acting out of an anal fantasy of impressive proportions.” It should therefore come as no surprise that the top brass regularly mess things up. ' It would be easy to dismiss Dixon’s theorizing as simply the kind of thing that gets psychoanalysis a bad name. In fact, a little reflection on the reality of military history provides ample refutation for his theories. Though many of the personality traits he identifies do seem to be present in some of the more notable cases of failure, it is by no means obvious that, by the same token, they are not also among the mental baggage of history‘s successful generals. Many great commanders have had their share of obsessional jealousy, mental rigidity, and authoritarianism; and at least one—Eisenhowerwhas been accused of having exactly the oppo— site caste of mind.” Even more perplexing if we hold to the “man on the couch” theory of military misfortune is the case of the commander who fails at one time but creates a remarkable victory at another. The Douglas MacArthur who so utterly misjudged the likelihood and imminence of China’s entry into the Korean War was, after all, the same Douglas MacArthur who first conceived and then implemented the Inchon landing in the teeth of strong opposition from his subordinates. Was he struck by a sudden attack of 10 Military Misfortunes anal-retentiveness sometime between june and October 1950? It seems unlikely. If Dixon’s theory were true, we would see much more evidence of incompetence—and therefore of failure—in the military world than in business, industry, or any other activity that involves controlling sub- stantial numbers of human beings. Observation and experience suggest that competence and incompetence are much more evenly spread among those in and out of uniform than such theories would suggest. Military disaster Would also be much more common than it is, and our problem would lie in explaining military success. Because this is not the case we have to explain why some military actions fail and Others do not. The mental characteristics of individual commanders are of only limited use in this. ' Collective incompetence and the “Military Mind" Somewhere between the “man in the dock" and the “man on the couch” stands the idea of straightforward collective military incompetence. To move from blaming a particular individual for disaster to claiming that all senior soldiers are more or less equally likely to fail the test of professional competence is not to take a big step. According to this theory, any indi- vidual could count himself unfortunate to be in the clock when the gener- ally low level of professional ability would permit few of his contemporar- ies to avoid similar accusations if put to the test. General Ambrose Burnside’s stubborn persistence in attacking the Confederate army at Fredericksburg in 1864, long after it was apparent that the effort was fruitless, has placed him securely within the cohort of military incompe- tents. But was he any less capable than most of his brother officers? The question is impossible to answer, but the temptation is to guess that he was not. Forced to offer an explanation as to why this should be so. Charles Fair could only claim that “the man who is by temperament and physique close to the going tribal norms tends to rise no matter how stupid he is.”'2 At this point we may as well give up all hope, for if Fair is correct mankind is clearly doomed to interminable military disasters! Compared with this theory, the idea that the “military mind" is the cause of all military misfortune seems complex and sophisticated. The idea that simply living in and serving a hierarchical institution such as an army encourages and intensifies potentially disastrous habits of mind, regardless of their supposed psychological origins, has found fertile soil— and nowhere more so than in the history of the First World War. Its generals seem condemned without prospect of reprieve by the hell of the Understanding Disaster I I Western Front, where hundreds of thousands of humble combatants were condemned to death by generals who concealed behind luxuriant mus— taches and lantern jaws their complete incomprehension of modern war.” The Conundrum of World War I By far the most powerful-and most damning—portrait of the military mind is to be found in C. S. Forester‘s novel lb: General. Narrowly schooled, unflinchineg devoted to their duty, and unmoved in the face of difficulty, the generals of the First World War were “single-minded and . . . simple-minded," as indeed they had to be: “Men without imagi- nation were necessary to execute a military policy devoid of imagination, devised by a man without imagination."” In their care, armies died in an uncomplaining spirit of self~sacrifice: It occurred to no-one that they had to die in that fashion because the men responsible for their training had never learned any lessons from history, had never realized what resources modern invention had opened to them, with the consequence that men had to do at the cost of their lives the work which could have been done with one—quarter the losses and at one-tenth the risk of defeat if they had been adequately armed and equipped.” Forester‘s damning indictment of the military profession was a novel- ist’s reacrion to the enormity of the homan price paid in the course of the First World Wan—a slaughter so unparalleled that it has been termed “the cruelesr scourge that Europe had suffered since the Black Death.”'6 In all, some ten million fell in battle during the four years it took for all sides to exhaust themselves—and one another. The seemingly endless casualty lists published in British newspapers during the war provided unmistakable evidence of the cost of British strategy on the Western Front. The official justification was that attrition was costing the enemy even more clearly, so that the process of wearing down Germany‘s re- serves of military manpower would lead inexorably to viCtory. The publi- cation of the official Statistics of the Military Efim qf the British Empire during tbs Great War in 1922 revealed that the strategy of Haig’s cam- paigns on the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele in 1917 had probably cosr the Allies more than the Germans. It began a battle of statistics that has continued more or less ever since. The Great War was not long over before men began to weigh the cost of Haig’s great offensives against the outcomes. In the case of the Somme, a campaign that began on July 1 with sixty thousand British casualties i' 2 Military Misfortunes ended with ten times that number, expended for a strip of ground some 30 miles long and 7 miles deep. It was not long before the accusing finger began to point at the leaders. Winston Churchill, with some sense of the complexities of the war and of the advantages of hindsight, pointed out that Haig and Foch “had year after year conducred with obstinacy and serene confidence offensives which we now know to have been as hope— less as they were disastrous.”” Lloyd George categorized Passchendaele in his Memoirs as a needless bloodbath. But it was H. G. Wells, in his Outline quistmy, who extended the responsibility for the failure on the Western Front to the military as a whole. The war, he declared, was “a. hOpelessly professional war; from first to last it was impossible to get it out of the hands of the regular generals." Herein lay the true cause of disasrer, for “the professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling. . . ."13 _ During the 19203 and 19305, Haig was singled out as almost criminally responsible for the apparently meaningless slaughter his strategy had en- gendered, ”an unfeeling, stupid and ignorant blimp who sent men to futile death in fighting conditions he knew nothing of.”19 Narrowly edu» cated, unimaginative, rigid, and remote, he became the exemplar of his profession, a man who bOth encapsulated and imposed the mental limita- tions of his kind. His professional mentality was so deeply rooted in the cavalry ethos of the late nineteenth century that he was quite unable to understand the technological revolution in warfare that had taken place by' 1916.20 An attempt in 1963 to get Haig out of the dock went too far in the opposite direction by trying to prove that his intellectual powers were far greater than anyone had given him credit for—an argument that failed to convince?1 It is possible, however, to take a more sympathetic view of Haig and his fellow generals, and of the very considerable and perplexing difficulties they found themselves facing, when we acknowledge the frightful novelty of the military situation in which they were called upon to wage success- ful war. No army was adequately prepared for the trench warfare that became the dominant feature of. war on the Western Front and elsewhere after Christmas 1914-. The technical problems it presentedmchiefly those of achieving surprise, carrying the first line of enemy trenches againsr the defensive power of rifle and machine gun, and then pushing on into the enemy’s rear across ground churned into an almost impassable morass by heavy artilleryuwould have taxed the mental resources of Napoleon himself .23 Gradually, as the war went on, a younger generation of middle- Understanding Disaster 13 ranking commanders applied their minds to the problem, aided by the advent of such new weapons as the tank and the airplane. The answer to the conundrum of the Wesrern Front, in purely military terms, did not lie juSt with new instruments of war. however; it entailed developing new techniques for combining artillery, infantry, tanks, and airplanes and developing a doctrine that emphasized flexibility over rigidity and innova- tion over obedience to long-established “principles."” For the generals, the First World War was a long and costly learning process. Not only was the high command confronted by a novel environment; it was also imprisoned in a system that made it well-nigh impossible to meet the challenges of trench warfare. The submissive obedience of Haig’s subordinates, which Foresrer took for blinkered ignorance and wholehearted support, was in reality the unavoidable consequence of the way in which the army high command functioned as an organization Under its commander in chief. A personalized promotion system, built on the bedrock of favoritism and personal rivalry that had characterized the pre-1914 army, ensured that middle—ranking officers undertook offensives of no tactical or strategical use whether they believed in them or not: If they obeyed orders, they could hope for promotion, but if they did any- thing else they faced the certainty of removal and disgrace. The way Haig ran his headquarters, preserving an Olympian detachment, tolerating no criticism, and accepting precious little advice, reinforced the rigidity of the sysrem.24 That system was itself a product of a different age and a different army, and was no longer appropriate to the circumstances. But rather than change it, Haig and his fellow commanders preferred to rely on the traditional tools of the general—men and guns—in ever-larger quantities. In Tim Travers’s words: The British army’s reaction to the emergence of modern warfare was therefore a conservative reflex, perhaps because full accommodation to machine warfare would have required social and hierarchical changes with unforeseen consequences.” . Our excursion into the contmversy over the talents—or otherwise-wot“ the First World War generals shows very clearly that the most promising line of inquiry into the roots of military misfortune is not to issue impre- cise blanket condemnations of the supposed deficiencies of the “military mind," but to look more closely at the organizational systems within which such minds have to operate. Leveling the same charge at quite different men, operating in differing circumstances, and'at different times, is not an aid to analysis bur a barrier against it. Indeed, the essential I 4 Military Misfortunes uselessness of the concept of the “military mind" for our purposes is evident in the fact that it is rarely offered as the reason behind the setbacks of World War 11, whereas the opposite is the case with the war of 1914— 18. If any further proof were needed that this is not the answer, it surely lies in the fact that generals such as Pétain, Foch, and even Haig per- formed much better in 1917—18 than they did in the earlier years of the war. They could net have done so had they been encumbered with permanent mental blinkers. Institutional Failure Sometimes, in cases in which it is self-evidently absurd to pin the blame for military failure on a single individual, entire institutions have been held responsible. Thus the United States Navy as a whole has been blamed for its failure to adopt the practice of convoying in 1942, and the whole French army indicted for the collapSe of France in 1940. At first glance, this looks like another cry of analytical deSpair: If no one can be blamed, everyone must be at fault. But nevertheless something useful can be gleaned from this approach, for it seeks to explain failure in collective rather than in individual terms. However, the difficulty of attempting to explain military misfortune by putting an entire institution in the dock can be clearly illustrated by looking briefly at the case of the French army at the outbreak of the First World War. Operating according to a tactical doctrine developed by General Ferdi» nand Foch, who believed that morale was stronger than firepower, the French army went to war in 1914 believing that charges by massed ranks of infantry with artillery support could overwhelm the defensive power of magazine rifles and machine guns. The result was a disasrer, and the French lost some five hundred thousand Casualties during August 1914 in the process of discovering that their cherished tactical doctrine was fatally flawed. What is the explanation for this failure, in which many parties were involved? One historian has ciaimed that the fatal disregard of firepower was the expression of “a long tradition of French intellectual arro- gance."26 Another has discovered a collective lack of brains, arguing that the intellectual quality of the whole French officer corps was in decline from the close of the nineteenth century, thereby rendering it liable to faulty decision making.” More recently a third has suggested that the French army adOpted the offensive with such enthusiasm because it con- formed to organizational ideology and institurional aims. Belief in the Understanding Disaster 15 offensive protected the standing regular army and created suspicion and doubt about the capabilities of reserve forces composed of civilians who had undergone only brief periods of military instruction and were held to be incapable of the disciplined tactical maneuvers necessary to carry out successful attacks.28 All these arguments collapse when a comparative dimension is added to the inquiry. In 1914 all major armies believed more or less equally in the efficacy—and necessity—of the tactical offensive, regardless of whether they were composed largely of conscripts, like the Russian army, or entirely of regulars, like the British; and of whether they believed in the strategic offensive, like the Germans; or the strategic defensive, like the Italians.29 This being so, we canrmt really accuse the French of being more arrogant or more Stupid than anyone else. Paradoxically, the idea of institutional failure draws some strength from its counterpart, the study of institutional success. Here, the imagination of historians has been transfixed by the competence of the German army. Ignoring the unfortunate outcome of both World Wars (from the Ger- man point of view), many writers have probed for the secret of German success on the field of battle. Some have found the answer in the higher direction of the German army, and in particular in the excellence of the German general staff system.m Others believe that it lies in less-elevated strata, and that a greater spirit of professional dedication among junior officers. more rigorous and effective training, a closer attention to tactical doctrine, a high degree of institutional integration, and a willingness to subjecr both successes and failures to close critical examination have been the real sources of German fighting power.“ There are many possible explanations for the tactical and operational virtuosity of the Germans in the first half of the twentieth century, but (perhaps for that very reason) no consensus exists as to which ones were the most significant. This kind of analysis is more fruitful than the traditional pastime of garlanding heroes and castigating villains. Nevertheless, looking at military forces as institutions is not entirely helpful in explaining why some of them sometimes fail because it directs us toward their distinctive social characrerisrics and seeks to identify special features or traits that make one army—or navy, or air force-different from another. Even supposing that we can identify these qualities correcdy (which is difficult), and that they are truly unique (which is often not the case), this does nor mean that we have found the cause of misfortune. For though we may now know What the insritution is, we do not know how it works. To do this, we must think of armed forces not as institutions but as organizations. I 6 Military Misfortunes Cultural Failure One more form of blanket condemnation remains to be considered: put- ting a whole nation, rather than its army, navy, or air force, in the dock. This kind of national character assassination has been justified on the grounds that "certain qualities of intellect and character occur more fre- quently and are more frequently valued in one nation than in anather.”32 Finding a firm analytical basis for such prejudices is well-nigh impossible.” For one thing, no one has yet succeeded in setting out supposed national characteriStics in anything like a sophisticated and acceptable form. For an0ther, this kind of activity ignores the fact that the laurels of success are not selectively conferred by some celestial divinity on a favored people or peoples. Disaster is not the inescapable fate of any nation. If anything can be said about the importance of cultural stereotypes, so far it does not amount to much more than the injunction n0t to underrate your enemy.” ' LESSONS" FROM CIVILIAN LIFE Disaster Theory Failure is by no means a monOpoly of the military. Since the Second World War, a good deal of effort and energy has been expended in ana- lyzing civil disasters; and these related Studies have much to tell us about how to tackle our problem. Disaster study really began in the years following 1945. It was heavily funded by the American federal government, in the hope that it would be able to come up with ways to minimize the effects of a nuclear strike on the civil population. Teams of sociologists went to work to generate the necessary data, and their field Studies generally consisted of a detailed examination and analysis of what was involved in the task of clearing up after disaster had struck.” This concentration on practical matters con- trasted with a general dearth of broad covering explanations about why disasters happen in the first place. The early literature virtually ignored this problem, and a rare foray into the question of causation concluded that it was impossible to construct a single theory of disaster that could encompass all the many sociopoliticopsychological variables involved". However, an important step forward occurred when theories of cognition began to be incorporated into disaster study—although contemporary an- alysts did not realize their true significance. Armed with the blessings of Understanding Disaster I I 7 hindsight, it is fairly easy to see in civil disasters chains of cause and effect (invisible to contemporaries) whose interruption would have prevented disaster occurring at all. Thus, “disaster-provoking events tend to accumu- late because they have been overlooked or misinterpreted as a result of false assumptions, poor communications, cultural lag and misplaced opti- mism."” As we shall see, a direct parallel exists in the military world, where failure can arise from inadequate or imperfect anticipation of an enemy’s actions. The lack of any general theory of disaster has not meant that accidents and catastrophes have remained puzzlineg inexplicable, for an easily iden- tifiable culprit is always around to take the blame: human error. It would be foolish to deny that human error is clearly a major ingredient in the making of many disasrers. Only human beings make decisions, and wrong decisions can easily result in misfortune. But the more one unravels the causes of disaster, the less satisfactory an explanation human error turns out to be—at least in the simple and straightforward sense of pinning the blame on someone. An example of where the hunt for human error can lead was the debate over the cause of the racetrack accident at Le Mans in June 1955, in which seventy-seven people died. The disaster occurred when one driver sheered into the crowd after being overtaken by another. At first the drivers were blamed. Then the mechanical features of the fatal car were the subject of critical scrutiny. From there the debate widened to take in the characteristics of the different nationalities whose representatives were most directly involved in the crash, the construction of the track, the organization of that particular race, the rules governing all motor racing, and finally the rationale of racing in general."a By concentrating on human error, this. inquiry into the causes of a particular disaster lost itself in an inescapable maze of unanswerable questions. What the Le Mans inquiry reveals—although it may have gone too far down this path—is that “operator error” may not be the sole or even the prime cause of disaster. To illustrate this, we can cite the Chernobyl inci- dent, which took place on April 26, 1986. Although the plant’s Operators had repeatedly violated established safety procedures, at least two other factors contributed to the genesis of disaster. Soviet reactor design de— pended to a large extent on written instructions to the operators to ensure that the reacror remained in a safe condition, rather than on built—in engi- neering safeguards; and it was readily possible to carry out tests without proper authorization and supervision.” Clearly errors had been made at a number of levels. But things can sometimes go badly wrong in circum- Stances where there has been no obvious operator error. 18 Military Misfortunes At 4:00 A.M. on March 28, l9?9, a serious malfunction in the nonnu- clear part of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor triggered a series of automated responses in the cooling system. During this process, a relief valve on the top of a pressurizer became jammed open. For over two and a quarter hours—abetted by an inadequate warning system that failed to register that the valve was stuck open and instead signaled that a switch had been thrown that ought to have closed it-operators misread the symptoms, turning off an automatic cooling system and thereby allowing the reactor core to become partially uncovered. Another twelve hours passed before plant crew and service engineers agreed on an effective course of action to overcome the results of these errors. Meltdown was avoided when an operator joining the emergency team correctly deduced that the pressurizer relief valve had jammed open. At that moment disas- ter was only sixty minutes away. The independent investigatory commission that examined the Three Mile Island incident found many areas of human error that had contrib- uted to creating a “disaster environment”: Licensing procedures were nOt entirely adequate, giving rise to some deficiencies in plant designs. Operator training was totally inadequate for emergencies, and poorly monitored. Control rooms were often designed with precious little attention to the operator’s needs. The lessons learned from malfunctions and mistakes at nuclear plants both here and abroad were never effectively shared within the inclustry.‘m Once the incident had begun, design failure and psychological predispo- sition combined to make things worse: Operators elected to believe the misleading indicator light but disbelieved a series of ominous readings from Other instruments that indicated that something was going badly wron . Frogm this brief account it is obvious that Three Mile Island was any- thing but a straightforward case of operator error. Rather, it was a com- plex accident in which a number of factors combined in unforeseen and unexpected ways. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's report ac- knowledged this complexity. “While there is no question that operators erred . . .,“ it concluded, “we believe there were a number of important factors not within the operators‘ control that contributed to this human failure. These include inadequate training, poor operator procedures, a lack of diagnostic skill on the part of the entire site management group, misleading instrumentation, plant deficiencies, and poor control room de- sign'mn I These examples are important to our inquiry in two respects. First, Understanding Disaster I I 9 they confirm the wisdom of our earlier rejection of the “man in the dock” theory as an explanation of military misfortune. Second, they em- phasize the fact that-win peace and in war—men Operate in environments in which events are only partly the result of controlled decisions taken by the person “in charge.“ To go beyond this, and penetrate further into the complex world of misfortune and disaster, we must turn elsewhere for guidance. Failure in Business Like their military counterparts, businessmen, professors of business ad ministration, and their students do not appear to enjoy discussing fail- ure.“2 Like their counterparts, business journalists relish the opportunity to tell the tale of how greed and ineptitude lead businesses to produce products that do not sell, to undertake projects that cannot work, to pile up debts that cannot be repaid. A few authors, however, have produced a literature on business failure that repays some attention.“ Most business failures take the form of the collapse of small, young companies—the equivalent of the explainable military failures we dis- ' cussed in the previous chapter. There are other cases, however, which closely approximate military misfortunes: a spectacular failure of a large and competent organization in a major undertaking—the business equiva« lent of a military campaign. One particularly good example of this is the story of the Edsel, the car introduced by Ford with much fanfare in 19 5 7, which failed miserably and was withdrawn from the market within two years.“ As usually told, the story of the Edsel is that of an organization that deceived itself through the use of pseudoscientific public opinion sur- veys, making a mockery of the techniques of market research and itself in the process. The case of the Edsel, however, becomes far more puzzling (and inter- esting) when placed in the larger context of the Ford Corporation’s per- formance since World War II. After its initial glorious period under its founder, Henry Ford, whose Model T became synonymous with the pop ularly owned automobile, Ford underwent along period of decline, dur- ing which it was outstripped by its major American competitors. It was only after World War II that its recovery began—a recovery under way at the time of the Edsel fiasco. Indeed, after the bruising experience of the Edsel (which some estimate cost Ford as much as $350 million, al— though that figure is probably too high) Ford produced one of its most successful cars ever, the Thunderbird. The more careful studies of the Edsel failure reveal that its sources lay 20 Military Misfortunes in the confluence of several different kinds of faCtors. One set of problems involved particular tactical choices made by different managers: a con- fused pricing policy, a publicity campaign that created excessive expecta- tions, and a design that was not terribly alluring. Another set of problems stemmed from erratic quality control—a deeper-seated problem in Ford cars that plagued the company for some years; many of the first Edsels had defecrs (most of them minor) that contrasted sharply with the image created by the public relations men. Tactics was not the problem here; organization of production was. Another organizational problem was the company‘s decision to create a completely new division to handle the Edsel, a division immediately thrust into competition with the other Ford divisions for resources and outlets. as well as with the divisions of other American car manufacturers. Finally, and perhaps most seriously of all, the strategic environment in which Ford operated had changed. One environmental change was the recession of 1958, which temporarily depressed the demand for cars. More important, however, was a change in the very understanding of what cars were. Ford, like most of the American public, had hitherto thought of cars in terms of price (low, medium, and high), and the Edsel was Ford’s Opportunity to break into the medium-price bracket. Until then Ford managers had complained that they were simply grooming customers for General Motors, the assumption being that customers went from low-priced Fords to the more expensive models offered by GM. In fact, the car industry was in the middle of a shift to categories defined more by “life-style“ than by priccw-and the Thunderbird would capture the “life-style” aspirations of many Americans quite nicely. This thumbnail sketch of a “business misfortune” has a number of instructive points. First, it is striking that no one attributes the Edsel fiasco exclusively or even primarily to the decisions of the president of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford 11. As important as Ford was in the hiStory of the company, the responsibility for failure was shared by a number of the members of the management team at Ford: There is, in other words, no “man in the dock.” Instead, students of the Edsel failure focus on particular components of the Ford organization, and in particular the Spe- cial Products Division, which later took over the Edsel operation. Second, it becomes clear from the Edsel story that three kinds of forces produced failure: what one might call “command decisions” by particular managers (on, for example, the peculiar grille of the car), organizational deficiencies (the quality control problems referred to above), and changes in the envi- ronment. The first could easily have been changed; the second might have been corrected but with great difficulty; the last was virtually unalterable. Understanding Disaster 21 This tripartite division of cause is useful as well in understanding military failure, in which all three kinds of forces are often lumped together. Fi- nally, the story of the Edsel reminds us of the importance of the political psychology of failure—the role of the expectations built up by those un~ dertaking a venture. Numerous models of new cars fail to make it in the marketplace; am all reverberate as widely as the Edsel. Had Ford not convinced itself and the attentive public (particularly automorive journal- ists) that the Edsel would be an extraordinary success, its failure, though Still painful, would have been far less of a humiliation. Students of corporate failure point out that when it is triggered by normal business hazards. such as recession, the critical question becomes how a corporation found itself in an inherently fragile position.“ Rather than suggesting that a business organization can foresee environmental change or predict the precise actions of its competitorsathe equivalent of surprise attack theory—they concentrate on the ability of corporations to adapt to change and uncertainty. And when they do this they frequently turn to a study of corporate culture—the norms and. “way of life" of an organization. This in turn leads to an understanding that failure is fre- quently directly and paradoxically connected with success, in the same way that a Species’ biological adaptation to one set of circumstances can leave it acutely vulnerable in others.“ Men, Organizations, and Systems Although it has been brief, our inspecrion of the world of civil disasters and business failures has something important to tell us. Apart from prov- ing that putting the operator in the dock—the equivalent of blaming the commander—is often quite valueless as a way of discovering what went wrong in a particular operation, it also suggests that we need to look at the military world in a new way. Instead of testing men and institurions, we must examine the structures through which they work and explore how those structures stand up to the Stresses they encounter. Wherever people come together to carry out purposeful activity, orga- nizations spring into being. The more complex and demanding the task, the more ordered and integrated the organization. How organizations work is a complicated and difficult matter, and different schools of thought put different emphasis on the roles of leadership and motivation, the significance of information inpUts and decision making, and the degree to which function shapes and influences struCture. Without entering into these disputes, we should more an important assumption all organization theory holds in common. In Charles Perrow‘s words: “One cannot ex- 22 Military Misfortunes plain organizations by explaining the attitudes and behavior of individuals or even small groups within them. We learn a great deal about psychol- ogy and social psychology but little about organizations per se in this fashion”? As an antidote to Dixon’s psychoanalytical theories of individual re- sponsibility, this is both refreshing and analytically valuable. We cannot and should not push the individual into the wings in our analysis of the causes of military misfortune; but we must take account of the fact that all organizations—not least military organizations—have characteristics that can determine how tasks are approached, shape decisions, and affect the management of disaster. Military organizations present us with special problems, for while on the one hand they are especially rigidly ordered and hierarchical, they are also designed to function in situations where chains of authority may break down or where higher direction may be temporarily intermittent or non- existent. There may be something about all military organizations that makes them behave in a similar fashion in some situations regardless of their nationality: For example, they have been regarded as being particularly prone to resist innovation.“ However, it is probably more important to take account of the fact that a particular organization may function in a special way at a particular moment in its history. We have already seen that this was the case with Douglas Haig’s headquarters in France during the First 'World War. Later we shall examine particular military organizations in more detail as part of our explanation of different types of military misfor» tune. For now we need note only the general point that some military orga- nizations may be more susceptible to misfortune than others, regardless of whether or not they are led by anal-retentive commanders, simply because they are the kind of organizations that they are. Men form organizations. but they also work with systems. Whenever technological components are linked together in order to carry out a par- ticular scientific or technological activity, the possibility exisrs that the normal sequence of events the system has been designed to carry out may go awry when failures in two or more components interact in an unex- pected way. Once this begins to happen—as it did at Three Mile Island— the operators lose control of the system. Charles Perrow has christened such incidents “normal accidents,” to distinguish them from “true” or “random” ones. These are the disasters that lurk within all complex sys- tems, simply waiting to happen and beyond the control of man. “The odd term normal accident,” writes Perrow, “is meant to signal that, given the system characteristics, multiple and unexpeded interactions of failures are inevitable."" Undersranding Disaster 23 According to Perrow, systems are characterized by linear or cemplex interaction and by tight or loose coupling. Linear interaction connects the links in a system along a single invariable path, whereas complex interactions “are those of unfamiliar sequences, or unplanned and unex- pected sequences, and either not visible or net immediately comprehens- ible.”’° Loose coupling allows the sequence of a set of components to be changed, making alternatives available; while tight coupling connects a sequence that is fast moving, allows no by—passes or alternative channels, and will only work in one fixed order. Armed with these important con- ceptual distinctions, Perrow distinguishes between component accident failures in which one or more things go wrong and are linked in an antici- pated sequence (as when a wing comes off an airplane) and systems acci~ dents. Such systems accidents occur in tight-coupled, complex systems such as petrochemical plants, space rockets, and nuclear reactors. Perrow specifically excludes what he calls “military adventures“ from the category of disasters that can be explained by using his theory.’l But nonetheless we shall gain much from thinking in terms of systems as well as organizations. For Perrow tells us that some events can be connected in unexpected and even unforeseeable ways to create the conditions in which disaster can occur and that failure at one level can have immediate and adverse repercussions at anather. Tracing these interconnections, which we shall call “Pathways to Misfortune,” will be the task of our do tailed case analyses. For now we need to note only that they exist, that they help to explain how military misfortune comes about, and thatw—if we look carefully enough—they can always be faund. A THEORY OF MILITARY MISFORTUNE Simplicity and Complexity In the age of the heroic leader, a lone individual could justly be awarded the victor’s trophies or suffer the ignorniny of defeat. But modern war— like modern life—«is a complex business. The commander no longer has a free hand to do whatever he likes. How soldiers fight is their business, and they may be either good or bad at it. Why they fight, when they fight, and very often where they fight are the decisions over which they usually have little control, for they lie in the province of politics. The modern general is the servant of his government, and its decisions may present the most able commander with an incipient disaster; or such a 24 Military Misfortunes general may find himself the heir of decisions taken by politicians now out of office or predecessors presently basking in retirement, which threaten to pull misfortune down about his ears. Because strategic decision making is a fusionist process that involves a variety of groups and individuals, it has been suggested that military incompetence “is no longer the sole property of generals, but results from the combined efforts of inept strategists, in and out of uniform 3" 1 Attrac- tive as this explanation of military misfortune may be, a closer inspection reveals that it does not provide us with the comprehensive answer we seek. For although soldiers may be bound by decisions Over which they are unable to exercise any control, they are not bound hand and foet. Their options may be limited, but opportunities still remain for them to outthink, outsmart, or outfight their opponent—or at least to put up a good enough show to salvage honor and reputation. In other words, fail-' ure lurks at many levels. It will be our task to locate and identify those levels, and to explore the links that can bind together actions and decisions taken at different times and in different places that, considered individ- ually, do not seem to invite disaster but interreact to generate military misfortune. Military misfortunes—like natural or human-made disasters—come in many different kinds. Any explanation of their causes must find a balance between the emotional urge to simplify and the intellectual acknowledge- ment of complexity. Even Clausewitz failed to resolve this problem. In his classic work On War he argued that the balance between opponents in battle usually shifts slowly and inexorably, estabiishing a trend that can rarely be reversed. “Battles in which one unexpected factor has a major effect on the course of the whole,” he wrote, “usually exist only in the stories told by people who want to explain away their defeats.”” In wars, however, he thought that a single accident might produce quite different results, and whole campaigns might be changed if a victory were won here or a different kind of defeat sustained there. He took this as proof that success in war was not simply due to general causes, and that particu- lar factors could be decisive.” ' Instead of thinking in aggregate terms and adding up causes to explain major setbacks, or—following Clausewitz—looking for one cardinal factor that is “really” responsible for disaster, we shall identify different types of military failure. Some result from falling victim to one type of error or short-coming. As a matter of convenience these can be termed “simple failure,“ although this does not mean that they are easy to foretell or to avoid. This allows us to postulate the existence of “complex failures,” in which more than one kind of error is involved. Only by thinking in these Understanding Disaster 25 terms can we explain different degrees of military disaster satisfactorily. And this will also enable us to present a typology of military misfortune that can be used to explain many different individual examples of failure. “Simple” Failures As everyday life proves over and over some people never learn. Having experienced a disaster once, they continue to indulge in exactly the same patterns of foolhardy behavior until they are visited by disaster once more.” Although we expeCt individuals to fall ready victims to this syndrome, whether because of mental inadequacy or blind carelessness, we do not expeCt sophisticated organizations to do the same. For one thing1 they have vast intellectual resources at their disposal; for another, we expect them to be aware of the need to amass vicarious experience by observing and analyzing the fate of others in order to maximize their efficiency. And yet this is just what happens. Like people and businesses, armed forces suffer misfortune when they fail to learn obvious lessons. Some environments are predictably hazardous, and yet disaster strikes them at frequent intervals. Hotels are nororiously liable to fires, and yet they repeatedly fail to implement known safety features in order to dimin- ish the possibility of disaster. 5‘ In such circumstances. disaster is the conse— quence of a failure to anticipate predictable situations. As far as individuals are concerned. we can offer a convincing psychological explanation of why such short-sighted behavior occurs. Most of us enjoy a strong sense of personal immunity which is seldom if ever rationalized; the threat of a danger hitherto not experienced is simply disbelieved; and we all try to inconvenience ourselves as little as possible.” All of which is understand- able for individuals—even if it may be unwise—but ought nor to operate for armed forces facing war, a known “disaster environment." And yet it does. The world of civil disaster also provides us with examples of our third type of “simple” failure—failure to adapt to new and unexpected circum- stances. Hurricanes and floods can be unpredictable and are effectively unpreventable in many cases; explosions and earthquakes may occur with- out any warning at all. In such cases, foresight and planning can minimize the degree of damage suffered once disaster has occurred and hasten re- covery. Specialist agencies come into action to cope with the aftermath. but the disaster-struck community also has to cope—organizing itself, evolving patterns of cooperation and mutual selfvhelp, sharing out unex- pected tasks and resolving competing individual demands. The impor- tance of such activity is so great that Form and Nosow maintain that 26 Military Misfortunes “organizational integration is the mOSt crucial dimension in disaSter per- formance."” The parallels with the military world are obvious. Units which—for whatever reason—are good at responding to unexpected sct- backs in a coordinated and effective manner will be more likely to avoid disaster than those that fail to rise to the challenge. “Complex” Failure In the military world a failure to learn, anticipate, or adapt will not neces- sarin bring total defeat in its train. Recovery is possible in theory and occurs in practice. Such a recovery will be more difficult—and perhaps more unlikely-when two failures occur in combination. We call these aggregate failures, for they present complicated characteristics and are therefore somewhat more difficult to explain. Catastrophic failure occurs when a military organization experiences all three kinds of failure simulta- neously or consecutively. When this happens, there is often no escape from absolute disaster without outside assistance. Total defeat and politi— cal collapse are liker to be the oonsequences of catastrophic failure. THE TAXONOMY OF MISFORTUNE There are three basic kinds of failure: failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt. Each has its own characteristics and consequences, as well as its own parallels in the world of everyday life. Sometimes, two types of failure occur simultaneously; and on occasion all three combine. By separating them out and identifying their essential features, we can provide ourselves with a simple typology with which to distinguish one military failure from another. The failure to absorb readily accessible lessons from recent history is in many ways the most puzzling of military misfortunes. There are nu- merous examples of it in modern military history: the decision to launch the Passchendaele offensive in 1917 in apparent defiance of the previous two years’ experience of trench warfare; the persistent belief of the United States Air Force in the ability of fighter-bombers to isolate the battlefield, attempted in two operations during the Second World War and the K0- rean War, bOth confidently named STRANGLE; and the decision by the United States Army that there were no tactically and Operationally rele- vant-lessons to be learned from the French experience in Indochina all fall into this category of military misfortune. There are many others. Understanding Disaster 2 7 The inability to foresee and take appropriate measures to deal with an enemy’s move, or a likely response to a move of one‘s own, produces a second type of military misfortune. In some cases, to be sure, an oppo- nent may conceal his intentions and abilities with such skill and success that a failure to predicr in the narrow sense is eminently understandable. Bat this is not always so; and in some cases reasonable precautions are not taken. Among many notable predictive failures we may single out two that illustrate the phenomenon: the failure to predict the Vichy French response to Operation MENACE, the attempted seizure of Dakar; and the eittraord'mary myopia of Hitler and his generals in assuming that the defeat of Russia could be achieved in a matter of weeks in the summer of 1941. i A military institution may have learned what it can reasonably be ex- pected to have learned, and anticipated what it could reasonably be expected to anticipate, and yet still suffer a misfortune. This happens because of an inability to cope with unfolding events. Where learning failures have their r00ts in the past, and anticipatory failures look to the future, adaptive fail- ures suggest an inability to handle the changing present. Every campaign presents some unforeseen challenge or circumstance. Not all military orga- nizations find themselves able to adjust in a timely and effective fashion to those challenges. The escape of the Srbambam and the Gammon from Brest on February 1 2, 1 942, and their successful passage up the Channel and into the North Sea produced exactly that sense of shock and bewilderment that denotes true misfortune. Although the Royal Navy had been able to predict that such a move was likely, neither it nor the Royal Air Force was able to prevent it. When two kinds of misfortune occur together we are in the presence of aggregate failure. Examples of such failure include the second American air attack on Schweinfnrt in October 1943, and the Anglo-French Suez expedition, Operation MUSKETEER, in 1956. Aggregate failures most commonly combine learning failure and anticipatory failure. They are no: necessarily likely to be mortalI since an ability to cope can make it possible to redeem error. When all three kinds of failure occur together, catastrophe results. Such a compound failure carries with it the risk of bringing about a complete national collapse. This is nOt necessarily the inevitable result of such a failure: it is possible to identify cases of catastrophic failure from which a country has subsequently recovered—the Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917 for example, or the British antisubmarine campaign between Janu- ary and April of the same year—but in such cases escape from disaster will be only by a narrow margin. Unless outside forces come to the aid of 28 Military Misfortunes the sufi'erer, or unless the ability to cope can be rekindled or reawakened, recovery will be impossible. In the pages that follow. we shall explore in more detail some compo— nents of our theory, before using the theory itself to analyze five cas: studies that illustrate the different causes of military misfortune we have identified. ...
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HIST202 Military Misfortunes chap 2 - 2 Understanding...

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