4/26/2006

Ending the war in 1862

A friend recently said to me, "I don't think the war could have ended in 1862." He said that shyly, expecting harrumphs but he was preaching to the choir. As Jay Winik has pointed out, its ending as early as 1865 was quite the fluke - one to be grateful for.

Tim Reese was good enough to pass on this paper to me today by MG JBA Bailey: “Over By Christmas”: Campaigning, Delusions and Force Requirements.
... over the past hundred years military establishments, encouraged and directed by their political masters, have persistently underestimated the length and costs of their campaigns and have frequently had little idea of the actual nature of their undertakings.
It's a sucker's game: the civilians ask for a military estimate and get one. They then enter into war - Politik conducted by other means - making a hash of the military estimate.
Politically-tainted overoptimism has often led to fundamental misappreciation of the nature of a military undertaking. This deficit in imagination and understanding is then, with some resentment, often blamed on “mission creep,” or explained away with clich├ęs masquerading as alibis, asserting that plans “never survive the first contact” or that readily predictable consequences could not have been known in advance.
Politicians hate plans and hate strategy. They are creatures of contingency.
... the serial misbehaviour of which defense establishments and their political masters have been guilty is so apparently irrational and foolish that it may in some way be endemic to the civil-military condition, and not amenable to correction by better training, education or more assiduous staff work.”
McClellan's friend von Moltke the elder (above, right) noted: “when millions of men array themselves opposite each other, and engage in a desperate struggle for their national existence, it is difficult to assume that the question will be settled by a few victories.”

Unless you are a Civil War author.

There is a lot of George McClellan in old von Moltke, including the not entirely fair teaching offered the Prussian General Staff during his tenure that Grant's 1864 plans were simply a revival of McClellan's 1862 strategy.

I should note, by the way, that the business about no plan surviving contact with the enemy is pure von Moltke.

Meanwhile, Bailey has moments of optimism that surprise one:
The criteria for success in this complex battlespace must be headed by an awareness of the strategic environment, an understanding of the desired endstate and its clear articulation.
Good luck with that, my friend. Desired endstates and clear articulation are not exactly stock in trade of the political class. I like it better when you say,
We are after all but actors in a long-running “human comedy.”
A very dark comedy, if you are a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine.

Enjoy this essay by a British major general and understand - I am speaking as a former general staff officer myself - that no American soldier since McClellan would have dared write this piece.