The difficulty with accepting the common, popular, and mundane notions of American history is that, most often, they’re simply wrong. This isn’t solely an American problem, of course, as all nations would rather recount an imagined history than one filled to the brim with discomforting (and sometimes bloody) truths. So it is that France encases Napoleon’s mortal remains in a triumphant crypt celebrating a revolution whose principles (liberte, egalite, fraternite), he blithely ignored; China provides the mummified body of a man who symbolizes a simpler and more ascetic time—in which more than 20 million of his citizens starved to death; while Russia guards Lenin’s remains while carefully shushing any mention of the legacy he left, as it did in celebrating Russia’s recent history during the carefully scripted (and suitable for children) opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
We Americans are less obvious, if also less subtle: we quickly transform our common story into uncommon glory—of a Continental Army standing unbowed before well-drilled Redcoats, of a war against slavery that, within a generation, became a War for Southern Independence, or in extolling the sacrifice of 58,000 Americans in a divisive intervention that became, less than a half a decade later, a “noble cause.” Not surprisingly, the truth is far more interesting than any myth. The Continental Army at Valley Forge was not only ill-clothed, underpaid, and desertion-riddled, its finest day had come not against British regulars but mercenary Hessians; the War for Southern Independence was waged to eliminate a racial blight that, when the war began, had already seen its best (or, rather, worst), days, while the “noble cause” of Vietnam featured a military that, by 1971, was “in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous.”
The substitution of myth for fact, however, has its uses—as one of our greatest soldiers, General George Patton, certainly knew. While Patton was an indifferent student (he flunked mathematics at West Point), he was an avid reader with a prodigious memory and a finely tuned sense of history. Which makes his speech to the Third Army on June 5 of 1944 (as celebrated in Hollywood’s epic 1970 paean), all the more remarkable, as it extols a history we wish we had—but don’t: “Men, this stuff that some sources sling around about America wanting out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit,” Patton announced. “Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”
But Patton was just getting started. “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser,” he went on to say. “Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the idea of losing is hateful to America.”
Of course, very little of this was actually true—even in 1944, two decades before Vietnam. All Americans love the sting and clash of battle? Not really. In January of 1781, in the midst of the American Revolution, 1500 soldiers of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey lines of the Continental Army mutinied, murdered their officers, and threatened to march on Philadelphia.
When the mutiny spread, Washington had the mutineers rounded up, arrested, and their ringleaders shot by a firing squad made up of their fellow soldiers. On July 10 of 1863, one week after the Battle of Gettysburg, the New York draft riots protesting conscription set fire to 50 buildings, lynched 11 black bystanders, and left 120 civilians dead. The insurrection (as it was called by city officials), was finally quelled by the New York State Militia. And in late 1944, while commanding in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower was so angered by the reports of teeming throngs of American deserters raping and looting their way through France that he considered “lining them up and mowing them down.”
Americans have never lost a war? It doesn’t take a trained historian to point out that the American military botched the War of 1812 (the White House was burned and Washington occupied), performed poorly (and genocidally) in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century (in which one of its most famous units, the 7th Cavalry, was erased from existence), and mishandled the brutal 1899 Philippine Insurrection—during which Mark Twain described American soldiers as “uniformed assassins.” Patton was no dummy and might have recited all of this himself. But his speech made for good copy (and, as it turned out, great cinema) and undoubtedly boosted morale, particularly for those who, within a short time, would be facing off against the best light infantry in the history of the world.
But while historical myths have their place in creating a national story, France, China, and Russia have, in turn (and over time), chosen truth over triumph—exhuming the greatness of Napoleon, Mao, and Lenin, while burying forever the policies they followed. This is true also for the United States. For while we Americans readily adopt the regalia of our past, we expect that our institutions will not follow suit; that in the midst of failure, our policymakers will discard myths and choose reality.
This is what happened, famously, on March 25, 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson met with a group he called “the wise men”—a wizened crew of 14 Washington policymakers to help him decide what to do about the worsening situation in Vietnam. Included in the group was former secretary of state Dean Acheson, former White House counsel Clark Clifford, former ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and former JCS chairman General Omar Bradley.
These officials had traditionally supported Johnson’s Vietnam policies but now, in the wake of the disastrous Tet Offensive, they had second thoughts. Stunned by the ferocity of the Vietnamese attack, only two of the 14 (Maxwell Taylor and Abe Fortas) recommended that Johnson “stay the course.” The shift was symbolized by Omar Bradley, a military icon. Victory? “Maybe we ought to lower our sights,” he told Johnson.
Of course, while the March 1968 meeting of the wise men was crucial to America’s adventure in Vietnam (and Lyndon Johnson’s political future), it did little to dampen the controversy surrounding the war—which has been refought, since, in the pages of the war’s histories. Indeed, it seems axiomatic that what cannot be won on a battlefield is often alchemized in later accounts.
These bloodless campaigns, fought with pen rather than sword, turn defeats into victories, burnish reputations, assess blame, but also blight understanding and blemish history. This is particularly true when it comes to America’s most controversial conflicts. In 1869, Confederate Major General Dabney Herndon Maury founded the Southern Historical Society. Its papers, later collected in 52 volumes, rewrote much of Civil War history, a tendentious rendering whose goal was to argue the justness of the Lost Cause. Many of the society’s papers remain troubling, rehabilitating the image of the most famous and otherwise failed rebel leaders, while laying the blame for the Confederate loss at the feet of southerners who, in later years, conceded the Union victory. The papers also remain controversial because their most important claims (that Lee lost at Gettysburg because his orders were disobeyed, that soldier-for-soldier, the southern armies were simply better fighters than their northern counterparts) resulted from barely veiled pro-southern and racially tinged political agendas. You’d have thought the South had won the war.
The same holds true for Vietnam. In that war’s aftermath, while much of America was trying to forget the conflict, a small group of respected historians continued to pick at its scab, leaving a blood trail of if-onlys in their wake. The most prominent of these historians was Lewis “Bob” Sorley, a respected former officer and celebrated biographer (of Creighton Abrams and William Westmoreland, among others), whose book on Vietnam, A Better War, has been the subject of controversy since its publication in 1999.
In A Better War, Sorley argued that the U.S. might have won in Vietnam, if only that nation’s top commander in the conflict had discarded his costly and morale-sapping search-and-destroy strategy in favor of maintaining the security of South Vietnam’s population, substituted clear-and-hold tactics for massive sweep operations, improved the training and equipping of South Vietnam’s military, decreased the destruction of U.S. firepower—and supported the South Vietnamese, instead of abandoning them.
The conclusions ignited a bonfire of criticism, particularly from some of the Army’s more respected thinkers. Writing in the pages of The National Interest in 2012, retired Colonel Gian Gentile took on Sorley in a pointed critique that proposed that America should have never been in Vietnam in the first place.
“In war, political and societal will are calculations of strategy, and strategists in Vietnam should have discerned early on that the war was simply unwinnable based on what the American people were willing to pay,” Gentile wrote. “Once the war started and it became clear that to prevail meant staying for an unacceptable amount of time, American strategy should have moved to withdraw much earlier than it did. Ending wars fought under botched strategy and policy can be every bit as damaging as the wars themselves.”
Put simply, Sorley argues that the Vietnam War could have been won, if only the U.S. had the will to prevail, while Gentile responds that because the American people did not have the will to prevail, the war should have never been fought.
The spat over the Civil War and Vietnam doesn’t necessarily mean that history repeats itself, but it does get rewritten—and rethought. The same is now true for the war in Iraq. The Army War College’s weighty two-volume study of the 2003 Iraq conflict (The U.S. Army in the Iraq War), has sparked a divisive mini-controversy among the uniformed services, whose senior officers regularly debate its major conclusions (as I noted in The American Conservative, online, back in February): that U.S. commanders didn’t understand the country they invaded, made assumptions about an enemy that proved to be wrong, didn’t have enough soldiers to win the fight, who bungled the military’s detention policies, and who failed in their mission to train and equip the Iraqi armed forces.
But any praise for these conclusions has been muted by the study’s other (Sorley-like) judgment: that, as in Vietnam—where the villains were the antiwar movement and the Congress, the villains in Iraq are George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the former blamed for too quickly getting us in, the latter for too quickly getting us out.
Into this affray has now jumped a much shorter (at 292 pages), offering, written by a team of nine experts and researchers at the Rand Corporation. The U.S. Army and the Battle for Baghdad, gives us what the Army War College didn’t—an unvarnished and precise accounting of what went wrong and why, and without the tendentious political overtones of the tome-like AWC study. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Among the study’s authors are two of the Army’s leading thinkers: retired Colonels David E. Johnson and Gian Gentile, the latter the outspoken Sorley critic known in the military for his often-scathing ability to say what he means.
Johnson, on the other hand, is known for his counter-intuitive and often uncomfortable question of given premises, which has made him a valued interlocutor in the upper echelons of the Army. The likely result of the study (much talked about in the military prior to its release earlier this year), is that it has had a far greater impact than its 1200-plus page predecessor. The U.S. Army and the Battle for Baghdad is not a page-turner, unless of course you’re an Army officer, but it lays out in precise detail the eight lessons the military can, and should learn, from Operation Iraqi Freedom. But most readers will find the study’s understated third chapter, on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, among the most compelling written on the war.
At the center of this presentation is the unshifting, unalterable truth of the war—-that the dysfunction obvious at the upper levels of the U.S. military following the fall of Baghdad mirrored a deeper civilian-military chasm in Washington. The result of the dysfunction was that the initial Battle for Baghdad was simply a prelude to a continuing battle for Baghdad, that the war, once ended, simply continued.
The study’s authors issue this crisp judgment, which is starkly at odds with the AWC study:
“While much of the blame for the shortcomings of postwar planning rightly falls on senior rungs of the Bush administration, the truth of the matter is that there is more than enough blame to go around, up and down the chains of command in military and civilian planning.” Military officers speak candidly of the problem: “I don’t think that any of us either could have or did anticipate the total collapse of this regime,” Lt. General William Wallace told the authors, “and the psychological impact it had on the entire nation.”
In military history, this is “the Henry Wentz problem.” Henry Wentz was born in York County in Pennsylvania in 1827, but moved with his family to nearby Gettysburg when he was nine. He spent his most formative years on his family farm, which was just south of the town and off the Emmitsburg Road.
As a young adult Henry went to Martinsburg (then in Virginia), married a local girl and became a carriage maker. When the Civil War came he joined the Confederate Army, serving as an ordnance sergeant in Taylor’s Virginia Battery. On July 2, 1863, Wentz found himself manning his rebel guns in his family’s front yard, at Gettysburg, as a part of Longstreet’s bloody assault on the Union Army’s III Corps. Lee had attacked with Longstreet that day to unhinge the Union line, planning to take the high ground around the Wentz farm at a peach orchard, which Lee thought was a dominating position.The orchard, owned by the Sherfy family (and hence referred to as the Sherfy Peach Orchard in battle histories) seemed to rise out of the ground and command the fields beyond. The problem was that Sherfy’s orchard didn’t dominate anything. It was not on a rise, it did not control the land beyond. The orchard’s height, if you stand on it, is an optical illusion. A short discussion with Henry Wentz might have shown this, if only Lee had known that Wentz was there.
For military officers commanding thousands or hundreds of thousands of young men and women, for military experts whose job it is to study these operations—-and not just for hobbyists or aficionados—the Henry Wentz problem is a tolling bell, a heart stopping wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night realization that not knowing, particularly when lives are at stake, is an unforgivable blunder. Reading about Gettysburg many years later, generations of Civil War historians, reclining by their firesides, want to scream at Lee: “What do you mean you didn’t know?” And that is the value of The U.S. Army and the Battle of Baghdad—-and the effect of William Wallace’s seemingly mundane, if stunning, observation. The U.S. military did not anticipate that the drive for Baghdad would be difficult, did not anticipate that the Iraq Army would transform itself into an insurgency, did not anticipate “the total collapse of the regime”— and so did not anticipate the tragedy that followed. To which we too want to scream: what do you mean you didn’t anticipate? It was your job to anticipate.”
Mark Perry is a contributing editor at The American Conservative and the author of The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.