During the modern era there have been numerous military blunders made by commanders-in-chiefs. I have chosen three because each has turned the tide of civilization, two in a positive sense, one in a not so positive sense. Each shows the intransigence of the respective nation's leadership and an inability to deal with reality.
Some regard President Johnson's decision to send over 500,000 troops to Vietnam as a major military blunder in and of itself. For the purposes of this article I will not go there. First, I must recuse myself. As a young Marine lieutenant I served during the Vietnam War. Second, although extremely tragic, Vietnam was not a tide-turning event. Of course, many might debate that point. I will listen respectfully.
As the summer of 1941 approached everything was going Hitler's way, everything. The Nazi juggernaut had captured nearly every nation in mainland Europe. Only a battered and bruised England stood in his way. In a manner of speaking, that meant nothing stood in his way. The idea of England alone recapturing Europe, defeating the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe at some point in time, was ludicrous in the spring of 1941. Hitler had his empire, and it pretty much looked like the Third Reich would last at least a 1,000 years. He then made his fatal error, dooming the Third Reich and himself. On June 22, 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union. Overnight, England suddenly had a powerful ally. Overnight, Hitler created a two-front war for Germany. Overnight, Hitler made the same mistake Napoleon had made 130 years before him. In invading the Soviet Union, Hitler did so against the strong advice of the German general staff.
Because of another classic military blunder nearly six months later, England would gain another powerful ally, the United States. On Dec. 7, 1941, naval forces of Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Fortunately, American carrier forces were not at home, and the aircraft carriers, now the queen of battle on the high seas, supplanting the battleship, were spared. The end result of this attack would be the total destruction of Japan's major cities, including the use of the atomic bomb on two of them, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ironically, Imperial Japan never intended to invade and defeat the United States. The purpose of the Pearl Harbor attack was to destroy the American will to wage war and gain naval control of the vast Pacific. The architect of the Pearl Harbor attack described this incredible error in judgment. After learning that, due to a communications glitch, Japan's declaration of war was delivered after the attack, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto warned his colleagues, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve." No truer words were ever spoken. American vengeance would be swift and complete with no small amount of assistance from our invaluable allies, primarily England, Canada, Australia, and the Soviet Union, the latter bearing the brunt of Nazi aggression until our invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
It is to the credit of the United States that these two once powerful enemies, Germany and Japan, are now two of our strongest allies. After destroying them in war, we rebuilt them in peace, and we can count these two vibrant nations as our friends. Additionally, to say that Western civilization benefited greatly from these two huge military blunders is an understatement. Without these two errors by Hitler and Hideki Tojo, Londoners and Parisians would be enjoying bratwurst, and citizens of Beijing would be enjoying sushi under the shade of the Imperial Japanese flag.
I wish that I could record such beneficial effects of the third military blunder I am about to describe. It gets worse. The world is still reeling from the repercussions of this third error in judgment and will be doing so for a very long time all due to a powerful nation's leadership that failed to take into account 21st Century reality and ventured into imperialism, a concept adopted by the Third Reich and Imperial Japan to their everlasting regret.
But, first a bit of background. Afghanistan is one of the most impoverished nations on Earth. It has few natural resources other than the poppy, which is used in the manufacture of opium and heroin. Today, it has 70% unemployment. Its people consisting of Pashtun - the tribe the Taliban hail from - Uzbeks, and Tajiks are fiercely independent. Gary Brecher writes, "... in southern Afghanistan, you've got the classic ingredients for a long, bloody guerrilla war: a big ethnic group on both sides of an artificial border, difficult terrain, and dirt-poor peasants with a long tradition of fighting just about everyone who comes along, from Alexander the Great to the 19th century British." It is a mountainous and hilly country with narrow passes where a 100 men can hold off a brigade. The mountain caves, nature-made and man-made are impervious to air attacks. The Afghanis are nearly ungovernable, even by Afghanis. To place this in an American context, during the 1800's try to picture the Sioux, Apache, and Comanche being placed under some sort of central government of their own. Farfetched? So is a central government of Afghanistan, a central government in name only.
Into this environment rode the Red Army on its tanks, armored vehicles, trucks, and helicopter gunships on August 7, 1978, with all the sophisticated equipment money can buy. They withdrew in defeat eight years later on Feb. 15, 1989. Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed in no small measure to their losses in Afghanistan, human, material, and financial. Following the occupation of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan endured a vicious civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, eventually won by the Taliban. Afghanis for centuries know only war. Peace has not been their option.
Sept. 11, 2001 - can any adult forget that day? For that matter, can any 4, 5, or 6-year old forget that day as they watched mommy and daddy staring at the television, crying while mesmerized by what they were seeing, breakfast late or not at all, daddy late for work, and mommy late getting them to school. The children probably did not fully comprehend what had happened on that day, but later they would. For grownups sadness gave way to molten anger and Americans felt an earnest desire for vengeance.
Soon after the attack it became clear that the perpetrators were a Muslim extremist group called al-Qa'ida under the leadership of one Osama bin Laden, an expatriate of Saudi Arabia whose band of followers fought the Red Army during the 1980's with material support from the United States. The al-Qa'ida organization was based in Afghanistan under the umbrella of the Taliban leadership. America deemed both the ruthless Taliban and the over-achieving al-Qa'ida were guilty as charged, and a huge majority of Americans wanted the head of Osama bin Laden, not literally speaking, of course. Just his execution would suffice, preferably at the hands of a young pfc. who initiated a gaping, fatal head wound with his M-16. Americans saw no need to place bin Laden on trial. This was war, and the purpose of war was to make the other guy die for his cause.
American vengeance was swift and devastating ... at first. Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by American, British, and Canadian forces on Oct. 7, 2001. The stated purpose of the invasion was to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qa'ida, and remove the Taliban regime which had provided support and safe harbor to al-Qa'ida. By the end of December, the Taliban had been removed from power, but bin Laden and other members of the al-Qa'ida leadership, notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, were not found. The ferocity of the attack by the American-led coalition surprised bin Laden. At one point he told his followers, "Forgive me," and apologized for getting them pinned down by the Americans. Michael Hirsh of MSNBC reported, "Bin Laden then asked them to pray. And, lo, a miracle occurred. As Berntsen [a CIA veteran] stewed in frustration over the Pentagon’s refusal to rush in more troops to encircle the trapped 'sheikh,' bin Laden was allowed to flee. And not only did Bush stop talking about the man he wanted 'dead or alive,' the president began to shift U.S. Special Forces (in particular the Arabic-speaking 5th Group, which had built close relations with its Afghan allies) ... [to another theater]." To date, neither bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri have been found. Conventional wisdom says they and their followers are holed up (perhaps, literally speaking) somewhere in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province out of reach of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Northwest Frontier Province is a semi-autonomous Pashtun land that neither the Pakistani government or the British, earlier, could control.
Bush's decision to divide his forces, abandoning the search for bin Laden knowing that American hopes for revenge would go unsated, to invade Iraq, while not as far-ranging as Hitler decision to invade the Soviet Union or Tojo's decision to attack the U.S. navy in terms of numbers and sociological impact, is just as egregious. There are four reasons for this judgment, Bush's thinking, longevity, economic impact, and the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. The reasons stated below are empirical and ignore the most important reason of all - the human tragedy that is Iraq caused by the devastation of a needless and baseless war. Iraq was of a war of choice sans necessity and national security issues.
Bush's reasoning in attacking Iraq was based on three premises. Saddam Hussein had WMD's and may share them with terrorist organizations or use them in an aggressive manner. The Saddam regime was somehow connected to al-Qa'ida. The Saddam regime had something to do with 9/11. We all know now what I and others knew in 2002 when Bush launched his public relations drive to attack Iraq. All three premises are bogus and the product of micro-managed intelligence, much to the chagrin of CIA operatives who were embarrassed by the revelations of the Bush/Cheney/Powell indiscretions.
The war in Afghanistan is reaching its seventh anniversary and has already lasted longer than WWI and WWII. The war in Iraq in its sixth year has already surpassed WWI and is quickly approaching the WWII milestone. The invasion of Iraq has caused respect for America on the world's stage to plummet to its lowest levels ever. The most optimistic exit from Iraq comes from the presumptive Democratic nominee-in-waiting, Barack Obama. His current position is that he will withdraw all combat troops 16 months after he takes office and he will leave thousands of support troops to train the Iraqi police and army units for an indeterminate amount of time.
The economic impact of these two wars is tremendous. The story of oil is the subject of another article. Suffice to mention that when Bush took office the price of oil was less than $30 a barrel. It now is $130 per barrel. This drives up other prices, like food. Of course, the rising oil prices not only effect the entire Western economy, but the world's economy as a whole. In terms of the U.S., Al Gore put it best. "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf ..." Some economists say that ultimately these two wars will cost over two trillion dollars. Not only are our children going to pay for Bush's folly, so will our children's children. Because of these two wars deficit spending has become a financial crisis, and the National Debt has become an 800-pound albatross on the economy to be borne by future generations.
To pour salt in the gaping wound caused by Bush's extraordinary military blunder, the Taliban, al Qa'ida's benefactor, has been resurging since 2005, not unlike a fictional Hollywood monster that just won't die. Of course, the reason the Taliban and al Qa'ida did not die is essentially a part of the military blunder I am talking about. Afghan war deaths now exceed Iraqi war deaths. Arguably, this is true because of Bush's surge in Iraq. Unarguably, Afghan war deaths are up, way up. Unarguably, this is true because we never completed our mission in Afghanistan because our military resources were diverted to Iraq. Rahimullah Yusufzai, a defense analyst and journalist for The News newspaper in Peshawar writes, "In Pakistan, Taliban militants have tightened their grip on three sides of Peshawar, a strategic city of 3 million people near the frontier with Afghanistan. The fourth and remaining side includes a major highway leading to Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad, just a 90-minute drive away. The Pakistan Taliban ... actually emerged as sort of a reserve group for the Afghan Taliban." He adds, "They organized themselves to protect the Afghan Taliban, to provide them fighters in case of need, and also to provide them sanctuaries in Pakistan."
Because of the shortage of troops on the ground, American and NATO forces are coerced into using indiscriminate air power. Gary Brecher writes, "Those fighter jets can't tell the difference between a wedding party carrying the bride to her husband's village and a Taliban column moving to the attack. But, like the old saying goes, 'pain is the best teacher,' and the pain the Talibs suffered when they were crushed in 2001-2002 seems to have made them a little more humble and flexible. This is something you see in a lot of guerrilla wars: After a defeat, the guerrillas come back much smarter and more patient, because the enemy has been acting like a sped-up Darwin, pruning the movement by killing off the hotheads, the sadists and the crazies, until only the smarter guerrillas, who had the sense to lie low, are left."
In his article entitled "Bring Me the Head of Osama bin Laden," Steve Weissman writes, "If Osama bin Laden consciously set out to lure the United States into an ever-widening, never-ending and militarily unwinnable war, President George W. Bush is providing exactly the war the bearded one wanted. Start with Iraq, where for all his talk of military success, Mr. Bush has just failed to get Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept a long-term Status of Forces Agreement. The Iraqis, it turns out, stubbornly insist on a timetable for withdrawing US troops and a commitment to block the Israelis from using Iraqi airspace to bomb Iran. Such are the political fruits of imperial adventure in a world that has long rejected colonial rule. Nor should it come as a surprise to hear our badly overstretched military brass echoing Barack Obama in Monday's New York Times. It seems that everyone in the know now wants to withdraw combat forces from the Iraqi quagmire to send them to fight the resurgent Taliban and opium-rich warlords in an Afghan morass." Presumptively, "everyone in the know" excludes Bush.
Weissman continues, "Allahu Akhbar! What more could bin Laden want?"
In submarine warfare there is an uncommon order that goes out to boat commanders that I happen to like. "You are ordered to pursue the target to extinction." With respect to the true enemy of America, the international terrorist, Bush failed miserably in this regard and was, instead, counterproductive, harming America in its lofty democratic goals for the world as a whole and endangering our very own Constitution.
Given the suicidal tendencies of the Nazi regime and Imperial Japan, the third major military blunder, in the context of the present and our future, may be the most serious of all. Absolutely no one knows when this debacle will end.