Thursday, September 13, 2007

“The Smell of Victory, the Agony of Defeat” or, Victory can smell suspiciously like defeat and vice versa – but your feet hurt either way

I spent last weekend in Maryland at a reenactment of elements of the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. Watching the parts of these battles selected for reenactment, it would have been easy to conclude that the Union Army handily defeated Robert E. Lee on September 17, 1862. However, most historians record this as a drawn battle and the bloodiest day in American history, with combined total losses (killed, wounded, and missing) for the two sides as high as 26,100.

What this weekend experience brought to mind against the background of the ongoing debate over the war in Iraq is just how difficult it can be to judge whether you are winning or losing while deep in the throes of combat. As my colleagues in Vietnam taught me back in the mid-1970s, it is sometimes hard to remember, when you find yourself up to your waist in alligators, that your job is to drain the swamp.

Historians and other students of warfare have long known that skirmishes, combats, battles, campaigns, and wars are very complicated phenomena. As the Greek poet Homer complained in The Iliad, “Victory often changes her side.” The Duke of Wellington had this complexity in mind when he wrote that “The history of the battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”

In fact, two of history’s greatest military commanders, Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, were fooled on just this point. In 1741, Frederick fled from the field of the Battle of Mollwitz after his cavalry was defeated by the Austrians. However, his infantry, commanded by Marshal Count Kurt C. von Schwerin (who persuaded Frederick to flee) succeeded in defeating repeated Austrian attacks, finally driving them from the field. At the Battle of Marengo in 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte’s opponent concluded at 1:00 in the afternoon that he had won the battle and retired to his tent. Unfortunately for General Melas, Bonaparte persisted, rallied his reinforcements, and counterattacked at 5:00 to win the battle.

The Scottish General James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, actually took advantage of this confusion at the Battle of Auldearn in 1645. Beset by two opposing armies coming against him, his own army was deployed such that each of its two wings could not see what was happening to the other. In command of the left wing, Montrose received a messenger from his right wing commander reporting that he was hard pressed and appealing for urgent assistance. Instead of declaring that they must rush to the rescue, Montrose turned to the commander of his cavalry reserve and announced that the right wing was driving the enemy before it and asked, “Will you let the MacDonalds have all the glory of the day?” The two troops of cavalry rushed into the flank of the attacking enemy force supported by Montrose’s infantry from the left wing and shattered the enemy armies. Auldearn has been described as Montrose’s most brilliant tactical victory in which his losses were reported as a few hundred and those of the enemy as about two thousand.

Warfare is ideally the centrally coordinated application of willpower and resources in a manner calculated to persuade the enemy to stop doing what he wants to do and to start doing what you want him to do. This effort is attempted in midst of conditions that are the dictionary definition of chaos. It is also attempted in the face of your opponent’s efforts to do exactly the same thing to you. As a result, the answer to the question of who is winning can change from moment to moment, hour to hour, and even day to day. Both the question and the answer are different over any longer time frame – and can be even harder to pin down. Today, we look back to the last six months of 1942 and recognize turning points in the course of World War II. To the leaders, commanders, and citizens alive during that period, there was a lot less certainty about the direction of events.

Therefore, if you are confused about whether we are winning or losing the war in Iraq, be assured that you are but the latest to exercise a longstanding military tradition. But I might offer some guidance as to who to believe on the issue of who is winning and who is losing:

o If they are not in a position to hear gunfire or at least cannonfire, then they are too far out of touch.

o If they are in a position to be frequently ducking from and dodging gunfire, they are probably up too close to be able to see the big picture.

o However, if they are close enough to hear the cannonfire and hear the gunfire without having to duck or dodge, they may well be in the best position to figure out who is winning.

Some further food for thought:

“It is no doubt a good thing to conquer on the field of battle, but it needs greater wisdom and greater skill to make use of victory.” Polybius, Histories.

“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.” Vegetius, De Re Militari. (378)

“Defeat is a thing of weariness, of incoherence, of boredom. And above all, futility.” Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, Flight to Arras. (1942)

“Victory is a moral, rather than a material effect.”

“Gaining military victory is not in itself equivalent to gaining the object of war.”
Both from Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, Thoughts on War. (1944)

“When things are going badly in battle the best tonic is to take one’s mind off one’s own troubles by considering what a rotten time one’s opponent must be having.” Sir Archibald P Wavell, Other Men’s Flowers. (1944)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

“Horribly stuffed with epithets of war.” Othello, Act I, I.

As we mark the end of our summer holidays, the approach of autumn, or the return to school, spare a thought for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. According to The Washington Post (Friday, August 31), Mr. Burns and his partners at Public Broadcasting (PBS) are concerned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may launch a second front on his new World War II documentary “The War” over the reported use of obscenities by veterans discussing their wartime experiences. In an apparent effort to defuse possible FCC concerns, Ken Burns and PBS have reportedly decided, “war is heck.” The Washington Post reported that there will therefore be two versions of “The War” broadcast - an ‘adult’ version for evening hours and a cleaned-up obscenity-free version for the subsequent weekend/daytime hours when the program is more likely to be seen by children and perhaps other innocent viewers.

As Ken Burns must realize, his decision could be said to contradict experts such as General William Tecumseh Sherman, who declared to an 1880 assemblage of Union Army veterans that “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.” Similar thoughts can be found expressed in language that might be more acceptable to PBS and the FCC. For example, Robert E. Lee, writing in the aftermath of his victory in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Even Lee’s good right arm, Stonewall Jackson, reportedly wrote in April 1861 about how “It is painful enough to discover with what unconcern they speak of war and threaten it. I have seen enough of it to make me look upon it as the sum of all evils.”

The film “Saving Private Ryan,” mentioned in The Washington Post, featured one of the most intense scenes of combat in film history. The television mini-series “Band of Brothers” included a very effective and dramatic recreation of combat in Normandy in the wake of the D-Day landings. The attack by Captain Winter and Easy Company on a German artillery battery is especially dramatic in its camera work that mixes action footage that is confused and even blurred in its fast-moving intensity with moments that are almost presented as snap-shots when something especially captures the attention and focus of whoever the camera is following. The resulting affect as I watched this segment was to recall the words of veterans of several conflicts that seemed to describe exactly this impression.

Nevertheless, the representation of warfare has long presented a challenge whether it was to be on the written page, on stage, in music, or on film – to mention only a few of the relevant art forms. For example, many veterans report that all artistic representations fall short because they cannot convey the full range and intensity of noises and smells that in particular afflict the battlefield. William Shakespeare specifically acknowledged the limitations of his stage in his Prologue to Henry V, when Chorus declared:

….But pardon, Gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.”

But there are questions left unanswered by Ken Burns, William Shakespeare, and the community of artists in all media who have confronted the challenge of representing the realities of war.

“Should artistic representations of war and warfare be more or less detailed and realistic?”

And, against the background of an ongoing conflict launched in great part by individuals who never wore a uniform much less served in combat, would American society be better or worse served by the frankest possible discussion of the realities of war, or is it better that we continue to shield people from this realities?