‘Learned’ Lessons Were Mostly Ignored
The military history of the U.S. Army in the 20th century is an interesting, varied, mostly successful account of some lessons that still provide guidance on how to fight wars. The lessons deserve volumes of research and study but if they exist, I have not seen them. My intent is to identify some of the lessons and present a personal opinion of their influence and relevance.
World War II still provides the first lesson as well as the best example of the effects of military force unreadiness. The result of that oversight in our ability to keep from losing before we could begin winning was covered in my Front & Center article in the May issue of ARMY (“War: Decide First, Then Be Prepared”).
The second lesson concerns the costs of that unreadiness. First, time: It took 21⁄2 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, to build the forces for the D-Day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, and the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific that led to the doom of Japan. It cost the loss of soldiers and Marines in our outlying possessions, in the Bataan Death March and in other combat actions leading up to the poor showing in the first battle with the Germans at Kasserine Pass in North Africa.
The delay allowed our enemies to consolidate their gains and thereby make countering efforts more difficult and time-consuming. It also condemned tens of millions of Europeans and Asians to demonic deprivation, slavery and death, and the destruction and devastation that ultimately occurred. Calculating the savings of lives and dollars that might have blunted enemy decisions to expand the war into that holocaust would be a daunting task, beyond the scope of this column other than to identify another subject that might be studied.
Closely associated with that lesson is a third one: understanding the potential, the initiative, the capacities and the determination of the American industrial complex to build the “arsenal of democracy” that not only provided the arms, ammunition, fuel, hardware, clothing and sustenance for our forces but also contributed markedly to the capabilities of our worldwide Allies. It was a complex that converted immediately to civilian production after the war, dominating world markets and providing the prosperity we enjoyed for most of the century.
A fourth lesson, less obvious and seldom credited as a critical factor, was the quality and capabilities of the Army and Navy officer corps. During the decades between the world wars, the Army held no major field exercises, no practical training for major operations. The principal occupations of the officer corps were schooling, study and preparation of plans.
The Army school system, correspondence courses, personal study of military histories, the biographies of great warriors of the past, and accounts of the contemporary armies of the world prepared them to build an Army of less than 150,000 into one of 8 million by 1945. They designed the forces; chose the arms, ammunition, equipment and uniforms; and calculated the fuel, food and other sustenance needed, all the while employing forces that kept us from losing.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall Jr. and Adm. Ernest J. King, commander in chief of U.S. naval forces and chief of naval operations, to design and build the military structure, and on their staffs and subordinate commanders to employ the forces to achieve the war’s final objectives.
The final lesson to be offered is the example set by Roosevelt, his Cabinet and the Congress of the period that turned over the conduct of military operations to the Army and Navy leaders and did not interfere with “how to do it” demands.
The Army and Navy remained in charge even through the years of military government of the conquered nations. There were no “whiz kids” with Pentagon authority, no target selections by the White House, no “rules of engagement” from the attorney general or DoD, and no national security advisor devising plans for the combat effort.
When the national strategy identified the objective and the national military strategy was designed by the military leaders, we seem to have been more successful. Comparing World War II with Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the Panama campaign and the liberation of Kuwait, would seem to validate the better system.
That same example is germane when reviewing the growth of the industrial complex. The government provided the authority and the money needed, but the “how to do it” decisions for producing tanks, artillery, planes, ships and all else were made by the industrial leaders of the country, another most successful enterprise.