Today I finished the book “Cobra II,” written by retired Marine Gen. “Mick” Trainer and New York Times correspondent Mike Gordon. The authors chronicle in great detail the strategic and military missteps that followed the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. The book is particularly important because its publication was the catalyst that launched the “revolt of the generals” a few weeks ago.
Their book appears about three years into this war. As I read, I couldn’t help but imagine (given today’s political atmospherics) how a book like Messrs. Trainer and Gordon’s might have read had it appeared three years after Pearl Harbor.
Such a book would have hit the bookstores at Christmas time in 1944. Messrs. Gordon and Trainer would most certainly have written about the unconstitutional arrogance of an administration that violated international neutrality laws by taking sides with Great Britain against Germany. They would have recognized that Pearl Harbor was the greatest intelligence failure in American history. We would have read the whole horrific story of the humiliating surrender at Corregidor that signaled the shameful loss of the entire American Army in the Philippines.
The condemnatory tenor of the book would continue with depictions of the useless slaughter at “Bloody Buna” in New Guinea, the humiliating loss to the German Army at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, the failure of Dwight Eisenhower to trap the retreating Germans in Sicily, the horrifically wasteful daylight bombing campaign against Germany in 1943. Messrs. Gordon and Trainer would have reserved their worst for the conduct of George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in their abortive “Crusade in Europe.”
We would have read about an Army unprepared to meet the Germans in the hedgerows of Normandy. Operation Market Garden would be depicted as a foolish “bridge too far” that left our bravest soldiers to die for a few square miles of Dutch territory. The useless slaughter in the dank wilderness of the Huertgen Forest would have shocked us. And of course the book would have appeared just at the time the folks back home got word of Hitler’s greatest defeat of the Americans at the Battle of the Bulge, evidence of another grand failure of intelligence and a testament to the genius of German arms.
Of course there was no such book written at the time. There were no calls for impeachment, dismissal or relief. None of this happened because military men of that age understood war as the most unpredictable of all human endeavors. Our grandfathers realized that unlike lawyers or doctors, soldiers practice their craft infrequently and often get it wrong at first. Thus, even the greatest military men make mistakes that all too often cost lives.
Sure, soldiers of that era carped about the human shortcomings of their leaders but they kept their own counsel because they realized that there was, first and foremost, a war to be won. They forgave the difficulties experienced by an army that had no choice but to learn to fight by fighting, the most wasteful form of education in the art of war. And they came home to a grateful nation sure in the confidence that they had done their part to destroy a great evil.
The imagination of historians like me can wander and take analogies too far. Al Qaeda isn’t the Wehrmacht. World War II was indeed a great crusade consuming two thirds of the nation’s production and twelve million of its young. Today the Army and Marine Corps, less than three quarters of a million, shoulder the burden for this war at a cost of less than 1 percent of GDP. Perhaps the American population is more willing to listen to criticism of their wartime leaders because they fail to accept that the stakes in this war are as great (or perhaps even greater) than those in World War II.
But before we become too cavalier about events in the Middle East, remember that Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons and Germany didn’t sit astride most of the world’s fossil fuel supply. Hitler never came to hate the United States with the mindless imbecility of radical Islamists nor was his anti-Semitic ranting any more threatening than those spouted by the likes of Zawahiri, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ahmedinejad.
Let’s take a page out of the book not written by the greatest generation. Pull some punches and breathe into a bag for awhile. I believe that it’s OK for commentators to challenge general defense policies and programs in wartime. I do that quite often. But just as a book written at Christmas time in 1944 might not have offered a meaningful picture of the course of World War II, any commentary on the course of this war might be off the mark just now.
In the interest of winning this war we all must defer judgments about the efficacy of our wartime leaders to the wisdom of the American voters and the 20-20 hindsight of historians like me…after our soldiers and Marines come home.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.