Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Petraeus

The final general chronicled in Victor Davis Hanson’s The Savior Generals is David Petraeus. Calling his story, “Iraq is Lost,” Hanson starts the story from a rather grim place.

The battle in Iraq had begun with stunning success. Donald Rumsfield strategy of a “light footprint” had led to a lightning fast incursion into the country following the tragedy of 9/11. In less than 3 weeks, Saddam Hussein’s government was removed and the task of establishing an America-friendly regime seemed easily surmountable. 

Yet almost immediately the complexity of the situation sank in and the initial flush of an easy victory faded. No stockpiles of WMD were found. The country became chaotic. No one seemed to be in charge. Conventional weapons were not guarded and were looted, providing the enemy with artillery. The administration began to publicly feud over how to lead a headless Iraq to a peaceful resolution. 

At home, the vaunted “light footprint” became a subject of much debate. Did we send in too few troops? Too many? Should we have even gone in the first place? Was the whole thing a mistake based on a lie/misinformation?

The first thing the military administration did was to cleanse the government of those loyal to Saddam, the baathists. This seemed reasonable, yet instantly the country was deprived of most of its bureaucratic apparatus and most competent workers. Left high and dry, it was an easy decision for them to joint the insurgent. Meanwhile, the majority Shiite population saw Saddam’s demise as an opportunity to rise out of the oppression they felt under the previously Sunni government and become the oppressors. 

As the counterinsurgency became more deadly to American forces, the American people began to turn against what seemed to be an increasingly hopeless endeavor based on naively optimistic projections. President Bush’s claim that freedom was a universal value and the Iraqi’s would welcome us a liberators looked more and more like wishful thinking. 

The military argued for an even smaller force to counter anti-Americanism, or more nation-building, or more targeting of known terrorists and their hubs. But a maverick named David Petraeus argued we actually needed a completely different strategy. Although everyone agreed the status quo was not working, very few believed Petraeus’ idea to temporarily “surge” the number of forces in Iraq. Petraeus envisioned a counterinsurgency to the counterinsurgency. He would work to make areas of Iraq calmer and more secure by inserting enough forces to protect the civilians and deprive the insurgents the necessary support and sanctuary they needed from the population.

After a particularly harsh election rebuke in 2006, Bush was willing to listen to small group, led by the charismatic Petraeus, and their surge strategy. They advocated three elements. The first was to increase the troops by 20-30,0000. The second was to promote Petraeus to the position of supreme commander in Iraq. And the third was to complete replace the methods of fighting as well as the people overseeing the fighting and reconstruction in Iraq. Bush grabbed the lifeline being offered, hoping a war-weary public would support a large-scale change of tactics while never using the Vietnam-era tainted word, “escalation.”

Once the plan was accepted, commanders in Iraq began implementing the changes even prior to the arrival of the new troops. Instead of safely hunkering in the green zones, troops were sent out into smaller outposts inside Baghdad’s neighborhoods, creating a much more conspicuous presence. Rather than drum up more anti-American sentiment, the troops were seen as reassuring to the population. However the downside of the exposure of troops led, temporarily to more American deaths. Initial fears of Vietnam style body bags overwhelming the news Americans received quickly vanished as the death count soon plummeted with the arrival of the new troops. 

Like all the other Savior Generals, Petraeus had spent a lifetime preparing for just this sort of role. All his life experiences had served to make him and expert in “large-scale postbellum occupation and reconstruction in highly urbanized, extremely hostile populations -- exactly what Iraq would be like in 2003.” He was the perfect man for the job. His success in Iraq led to changing opinions of the war at home and silenced critics in the Congress who wanted to cut and run. The quote that started this section, “Iraq is lost.” came from the mouth of Harry Reid. Petraeus made that kind of rhetoric cease. 

He curbed the American casualties suffered because of crude roadside explosive devices by embedding more troops within the population to gain better intelligence concerning the bombing crews. He requisitioned better, though less maneuverable, tanks that could protect against the bombs. The plummeting death toll had the intended effect of boosting morale with the troops and people at home. 

Like most of the other Savior Generals, Petraeus life after his astounding victory was rocky. He went onto assume the command of CENTCOM, “the most prestigious and important regional theater of operations.” He led the counterterrorism operation in 20 countries as well as overseeing Iraq and Afghanistan. 

But once General Stanley McChrystal was abruptly relieved of his post as commander in Afghanistan for indiscreet comments, Petraeus was asked to actually take a step down and head up the efforts in that flailing contest. Afghanistan did not prove as successful for Petraeus, and after a year, he stepped down to head the CIA. Later a scandal in his marriage led him to resign that post as well. 

America, with Obama at the helm, seems intent on reversing the gains in Iraq made by Petraeus. Unfortunately we fail to realize how much Petraeus did for America and the perception of it around the world. He restored our military reputation and made sure the world knew we could and would win when we set our mind to it. But we seem to have forgotten that lesson and are throwing away the accomplishment of a great leader. 

Maybe it’s time for Savior General here at home. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Ridgway

The 4th story in Victor Davis Hanson’s book, The Savior Generals, bears the title “One Hundred Days in Korea” and relates the tale of General Matthew Ridgway. I know almost nothing about the Korean War, so this particular story was all new to me. 

Shortly after WW2, Harry Truman had made Korea a test of American resolve to never again appease and aggressor. But by December, 1950, that determination was looking to fail. 

The very popular General MacArthur was in charge of the Pacific, yet he had failed to anticipate the large Communist Chinese incursion into the peninsula. However, in the days when we had just stopped the Japanese with an atomic bomb, MacArthur believed the best way to deal with the hordes was to once again resort to nuclear weapons to bomb the Chinese supply lines. Truman did not rule it out. 

If Korea fell, it appeared the aggression of the communists would overtake Japan, Taiwan, or maybe even the Philippines. It looked desperate.

General Ridgway had made a name for himself calling for America to fight limited, conventional wars and eschew nuclear weapons as the first choice. “Perhaps his appointment to save a limited war through conventional means was seen as a way of putting Ridgway’s proverbial money where his mouth was.” Ridgway was one of the few generals who had actually seen combat but he knew little about Asia and Korea in particular. 

Initially, MacArthur had enjoyed stunning success. He pushed the North Koreans all the way back to the the border with China. But MacArthur was one to brag that he had reunited the peninsula and so antagonized the Chinese neighbors. The communists had finally crossed the border and pushed the Americans almost out of the country. 

“Against this backdrop of the growing panic, Ridgway was taking over a seemingly hopeless command pawned off on him by his legendary superior, General MacArthur. The latter was ensconced  hundreds of miles away in Tokyo fighting political battles with the Truman administration for his own legacy and reputation, hoping to preserve a possible future career in politics. If the Americans surrendered or were destroyed, Ridgway would be responsible for that defeat as supreme commander in the field -- and MacArthur could use Ridgway’s failure as proof that the war effort had been shorted by Washington. Yet if Ridgway were to be successful in restoring the front, the credit would likely go to the old strategist MacArthur, who still enjoyed nominal overall command.” Ridgway was faced with a lose-lose proposition. 

The Communists were similarly dug-in about not allowing an American backed government right on their doorstep. Russia and Mao believed all of Korea belonged in their sphere. Ridgway was not even clear on the American objective. Were we willing to go the distance and take the whole country? Could we defeat a newly nuclear-armed Russia? Were our nuclear weapons even capable of being effective against China?

Ridgway knew he had to raise the morale of the troops he commanded. They had just suffered a disastrous route after a huge victory. Just his appearance encouraged his men. He routinely dressed as a common soldier. He had a grenade and medical kit strapped onto his shoulders as if at any time he could be called into battle. Also, he knew his history and the age-old problems of armies making huge incurrences into enemy territory. The further they went, the longer and less stable became the supply lines. Like Johnston, Ridgway sought a tactical retreat, hoping to stretch the Chinese supply lines, while strengthening his troops until the communists were vulnerable to a counterattack. 

Because of his genius strategy, “in about eleven weeks after Ridgway’s arrival, Seoul was recaptured from the Chinese and North Koreans. In little more than three months, South Korea was in fact saved and its borders restored to or beyond the 38th Parallel.” Ridgway’s good news was actually disheartening to MacArthur because he proved the old general wrong. We did not need atomic bombs and more funding from Washington to preserve South Korea. 

Ridgway did not press on to take the whole country. The country had been divided for many years. The battle to reunite the halves led to talk of nuclear weapons and invasions of China. After Ridgway’s victory in reclaiming Seoul and the 38th Parallel, “all such desperate planning quietly ceased.” 

We forget that once we entered “the nuclear age,” limited conventional wars were thought to be a thing of the past. Ridgway’s brilliant conventional victory removed the instant reliance on our nuclear arsenal. We may be able to credit the fact that no one has ever again dared to detonate an atomic weapon to Ridgway’s success in South Korea, a place once believed to be lost. 

Americans proved that Soviet aggression could be stopped, and we succeeded in giving South Korea “a chance to find their own destiny.” The success of both South Korea and Taiwan today owe much to Matthew Ridgway.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Sherman

I’m loving learning about the Civil War. So I was excited to see that Victor Davis Hansen included General Sherman as the 3rd story in his book The Savior Generals. He entitled the piece, “Atlanta is Ours and Fairly Won.” Compared to his contemporaries, Sherman seems an unlikely man to become one of the very few to be given the title “Savior General.” Yet his apparent background of “failure” provided exactly what he needed to go on to secure Atlanta for the Union.

Hansen writes, “Quite unknowingly, by taking on and losing job after job, he had been engaged in a three-decade-long course of practical and formal preparation for generalship in a new age of mobile and total warfare. At one time or another, Sherman had refined his formal education at West Point with jobs as diverse as college administrator, banker, businessman, farmer, lawyer, and trader. He had visited and been deployed throughout much of the United States even as he was written off as a hopeless failure. At one point, Sherman confessed, ‘I was afraid of my own shadow.’”

After victories at Shiloh and Vicksburg, Grant was moved to head the entire Union army in the east. Sherman was left to the western front. But Grant was bogged down on his way to Richmond after a devastating defeat at Cold Harbor. 

Politically, Lincoln was in trouble. The election was coming up and the nation was war weary. The country appeared ready to replace Lincoln with the incompetent general McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired. McClellan promised to end the war which would effectively leave the union split into two nations. Lincoln needed a major victory soon if he was to have any chance at reelection. 

Paradoxically, the farther into the South the Federals pushed, the harder victory became. They encountered the age-old problem in war. More land had to be occupied with fewer troops who more stretched and removed from their home territory and stable supply lines. Lee figured out that the battle had become political more than military. The longer he could hold out, the closer to the election it got, and the surer Lincoln’s defeat become. Lee just had to run out the clock, not defeat the North. 

Meanwhile, Grant was bogged down in the horrendous “Wilderness Campaign” on his way to Richmond. The mind-numbing number of casualties he was suffering continued to contribute to the nation’s sense of defeat. It became apparent that there was no way Grant would make it to Richmond in time to secure a victory before the election.

While Grant fought in the wilderness, Sherman set out from Tennessee with Atlanta in his sights. With the win at Vicksburg, the Union controlled the Mississippi. If Grant could march to Atlanta, the South would be cut in half again and the war effectively won. But the calendar read May 7. He had only a few short months to end a war which had been going on three years at this point.

Sherman instituted a three-pronged approach towards Georgia. As Sherman neared, Confederate general Johnston felt his position to be untenable and despite six months spent building fortifications, he retreated without a fight. 

The Federals continued to push Johnston who continued to retreat. Johnston was trying to do to Sherman what Lee was doing to Grant. Johnston sought to slowly draw Sherman towards a big decisive battle or costly stalemate, while keeping an eye on the calendar. However, the geography worked in Sherman’s favor. “There was simply not enough land between Sherman and Atlanta to ensure, at the present rate of advance, that he would not get there before the critical November election.” Sherman kept pressing and pushing Johnston inexorably closer and closer to Atlanta. Johnston hope the lengthening supply lines and wild terrain along with occasional skirmishes would run out the clock.

Despite his success at living off the land and continuing to push Johnston, in June, Sherman deviated from his plan. He decided to attack the now dug in Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain. Rather than being the decisive victory Lincoln needed, the Union forces suffered a punishing defeat. Unlike Grant, Sherman learned his lesson. He would not continue that suicidal head-on tactic, knowing that with his larger and more motivated army, he could keep pushing Johnston. 

As Johnston continued to retreat and the Union advanced further into the South, southern morale began to plummet. Jefferson Davis had had enough of the retreating Johnston and in a fatal decision replaced the cool, even-tempered general with the young, fiery and impetuous Hood. No more simply chasing the confederates. Hood stood his ground and fought. But he could not win against Sherman who continued to push the rebels towards Atlanta at devastating costs to the South. 

Sherman besieged Atlanta, destroying the life-blood railroad tracks that brought supplies into the city. On September, Hood pulled his forces from the city, blowing up the city’s munitions as Sherman entered. “In less than fifteen weeks since leaving Tennessee, Sherman with relatively light casualties had taken the second most important city of the Confederacy. His army remained over eighty thousand soldiers strong -- not that much smaller than when he had begun the Atlanta campaign.”

While Sherman was faulted for letting Hood and his army escape, he accomplished some pretty amazing things. First, he provided a huge morale boost to the North and destroyed McClellan’s presidential bid. Second, he ensured very light casualties. Third, the continued attacks on Hood’s forces at Atlanta had reduced the rebel numbers by half. Fourth, Hood was unable to reinforce Lee. Fifth, the North was positions deep inside the South. Sixth, Sherman gave deference to Grant and so saved the man’s sinking reputation. 

After the victory over Atlanta, Sherman continued to march to the sea, eventually making into Virginia and with Grant, forcing an official end to the war in April 1865. Sherman’s widely remarked upon pillaging and burning the South as he marched east had the desired effect of uncontrovertibly defeating and humiliating the South. He wanted them to see once and for all the ramifications of their decision to inflict war on the United States. 

Without the courage and decisiveness of Uncle Billy and his men, Lincoln might very well have lost the election and the United State today would look very different.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Belisarius

Story number 2 in Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book, The Savior Generals is entitled, “Byzantium at the Brink.” He tells the epic and tragic story of Flavius Belisarius who served the Byzantine Empire from A.D. 527-59.

The medieval myth has our hero Belisarius ending his life a poor beggar, blind and crying for coins in the street. The truth is not so harrowing, but tragic nonetheless. 

Belisarius enters the picture at age 25 into a civilization in crisis. By this point in time, the Byzantine Empire has lost much of its Roman origins. It relied on barbarians, bribes, and strategic marriages to maintain its vast borders. The future emperor, Justinian, and his lieutenant, the young Belisarius, believed Byzantine must be saved at all costs. Justinian dreamed of reuniting the old Roman Empire under his eventual rule. Belisarius would be his instrument. Both recognized the greatness that had been lost when the old empire fell, and both believed, against all odds it could be restored. 

While he may have been motivated by the treasure and power to be gained, it appears that “ultimately what drove [Belisarius] and thousands in the high echelons of Byzantine government and the military for more than thirty years against near impossible odds were both his faith in Christianity and his allegiance to the idea of Roman civilization and the gifts it had bestowed on millions.” A restored Rome would be Belisarius’ gift to the world.

Belisarius was first sent out against the trouble-making Persians in the east. Usually, Constantinople determined that it made more sense to simply pay off the Persians to stay away. But in 527, the emperor Justin decided he’d had enough and decided resistance would be cheaper. Although young, Belisarius’ connection to the Emperor’s nephew and future emperor, Justinian, secured his place as the commanding officer. “Belisarius almost immediately proved worthy of his selection through two characteristics that would elevate his leadership above his contemporaries. First, he was calm in battle, and he knew instinctively the relationship between tactics and strategy and thus avoided wasting the limited resources of the empire in needless head-on confrontations that would lead to no long-term advantage. Second, Belisarius was skilled in counterinsurgency, in winning the hearts and minds of local populations by not plundering or destroying villages and infrastructure... Such restraint was rare among gold-hungry Byzantine commanders in the east. The result was that, even after initial defeats, Belisarius never lost an army or had hostile populations turn on his rear.”

These aforementioned traits served time and again throughout his lifetime of service.

After holding the Persians to a stand still and securing the borders, Belisarius was ordered home to Constantinople to prepare to fight the Vandal Kingdom off to the coast of North Africa. Upon his arrival, he found mobs attacking the weak new emperor, Justinian, demanding reforms. Belisarius set out to arrest the ringleader, but on his own initiative, set upon the rioters and led the emperor’s troops in the slaughter of up to 30,000. This, along with the advice of Justinian’s wife, Theodora, to stand and not flee, led to a strengthened and, increasingly ruthless, Justinian. 

After setting the kingdom aright, Belisarius flew off to North Africa. For close to a century, the Vandal kingdom had had an uneasy peace with the Byzantine Empire. But after a pro-Byzantine king was dethroned in a coup and his cousin, the usurper, began persecuting Christians, Justinian knew this was his chance to reclaim old Roman land. 

Drawing upon his skills of using limited resources wisely and fostering counterinsurgency, Belisarius made it to the capital city, Carthage, in six days. Over the next three months, he worked to win over the local population and those still loyal to the previous regime. He knew his limited forces could never hold the city if he did not have the backing of the inhabitants. “Less than seven months later, his army had destroyed the century-old Vandal kingdom in Africa, captured the usurper king... either killed, enslaved, or recruited into his army most of the Vandal population,established a new Byzantine province... and sent waves of terror through the Gothic hierarchy in Italy that it might be next in line...”

The Goths in Italy had terrorized Roman society for two hundred years. Constantinople was too far from Italy to succumb to the harassment, but also too far to re-occupy it. After returning to Constantinople with the plunder of the Vandals, Belisarius headed west again and on December 9, 536, he entered Rome having “annexed much of North Africa and retaken Sicily and half of Italy.” Belisarius probably paid for his small forces out his own share of the booty from the Vandal campaign, not wanting to stress the official treasury. 

His rapid success was not without cost, however. In typical emperor fashion, Justinian began to see the successful, maturing general Belisarius as a potential rival for his power. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople despite the effect it had on the successful retaking of the rest of Italy. Unlike his return from the Vandal conquest, he was given no triumphal marches. Yet the people’s love for him grew. They recognized his virtues and success which led the emperor to fear him even more. Fortunately, the Persians were again threatening in the east and so Belisarius was dispatched. 

Belisarius fought the Persians to a standstill for two years while the capital city was ravaged by a plague. This further limited his resources, and personal problems with his enterprising and cunning wife, Antonia, took their toll. Once again, his outreach to the local population proved the best plan of action as he was able to “push back the enemy at little cost while neither exceeding nor failing to meet his emperor’s goals.” All this time, despite Justinian’s fears, Belisarius shows no desire to usurp power from his friend.

Because of the plague, Justinian fell desperately ill. Intrepid generals used this as an excuse to plot for a replacement. Although Belisarius did not indicate he wanted the role, the fact that his name was mentioned and championed was enough to cause his downfall. While Justinian recovered, his wife, Theodora, took over the inquisition into the plotters. “Belisarius was relieved of command and had his wealth confiscated. He could neither finish the Persian war nor head back west to stabilize the renewed Gothic conflict in Italy, Instead, for more than two years he was persona non grata in Constantinople, ostracized, impoverished, and under constant suspicion.” His only hope lay in a fully recovered Justinian returning him to his commission. Although the emperor recovered, Belisarius is lost to the historical record for a decade.

He suddenly reappears in 559. With all the generals and the severely depleted forces scattered all over the world fighting to maintain the newly reformed Roman Empire, the Huns chose to attack the capital. In desperation, the aging Justinian had no choice but to once again turn to his old friend, Belisarius, to protect the Byzantine Empire. Once again the old fighter did what he did best, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the loyal service of his king. “But the contrast between Justinian’s panic and Belisarius’ fortitude only furthered their final estrangement.”

Once again, Belisarius was the subject of a conspiracy investigation. Although finally cleared because it was simply too dangerous to convict such a popular hero, Belisarius died two years later, eight months before the paranoid emperor. 

“At his death, Flavius Belisarius’ imperial Constantinople -- nearly wiped out by successive epidemics of bubonic plague, with Bulgars once again nearing the gates of the city, its Christianity torn apart by schisms and heresies, the great dome of the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia just recently restored from sudden collapse due to design flaws, the forty-year reign of its greatest emperor nearing a close -- would nonetheless endure another 888 years. Its resilience had been in no small part due to the thirty-year nonstop warring of Belisarius -- the last Roman general and the greatest military commander that a millennium-long Byzantium would produce -- who in a brief three decades had expanded the size of the eastern empire by 45 percent. Belisarius did not save a theater, or even a war, but rather an entire empire through unending conflict his entire life.”