18 February 2008

Book promotion through resignation

Lieutenant-Colonel John Nagl, who wrote the U.S. Army's combat manual on counterinsurgency operations, appeared last week on All Things Considered, having become newsworthy through deciding to leave the Army.

Nagl is the sort of guy whose books are embraced enthusiastically by any publisher. Last week's appearance wasn't the first on NPR this year. He appeared on Fresh Air last month. He's also been on the Daily Show. He possibly came to public prominence in 2004, in a New York Times' article.

His magnum opus (so far), published in 2005 by the University of Chicago Press, is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. This examination of two cases in counterinsurgency warfare, the British army in Malaya during the 1950s and the American army in Vietnam during the 1960s, reflects its origins as a University of Oxford PhD thesis in both its choice of subject and its conclusion. You can find a review of it, which is perceptive in places, here.

There's a tendency on the part of organizations to study success and contrast it with failure. In my contrarian way, I'm inclined to the view that failure is more instructive. Nagl's Soup reflects an Anglophilia that the review punctures, especially by bringing up the case of Palestine, which is a much more important experience for the American army in Iraq today to consider. The British had the awkward problem of dealing with two communities who both wanted to control their destiny on the same land. That's a problem the American army has to contend with in Iraq, only they have the Kurds to contend with as well. And why did the British fail in Palestine? Well, there's something to put on my to-do list.

11 February 2008

What General Johnston Did

Some years ago I got a few people together to write some notes about what generals in ancient and medieval battles did. Partly it was inspired by John Keegan's book The Mask of Command. However, I was more interested in my own agenda, which was to figure out how a general spent his (or her, in those days) time during a battle. Of course, writing about the ancients means entering a difficult world for the historian, where resources are limited to the point of a starvation diet.

In one of those Internetly sort of ways, I came across General Joseph E Johnston's account of the campaign of Bull Run (or Manassas, as he might have called it) in the summer of 1861. It was mentioned in one of my favourite blogs, which served as a sort of inspiration for this, Civil War Book News, in connection with how military use of railroads was managed during the American Civil War. But, as I read it, I remembered my ancient generals' symposium, and decided to treat this text in the same way to see what Johnston actually did in getting his army into battle.

You'll note the first thing he did was to study the ground. Terrain (and weather) probably are far larger role in warfare than armchair generals perhaps appreciate. Yet, what confirms him in his decision of where to establish his base is a third factor, communications. Winchester enables him to support General PGT Beauregard's forces to the east, and presumably vice versa.

In the unique nature of American Civil War armies, Johnston's next job is to shape his army, an amateur force that is badly trained and equipped. George Washington will have known how he felt.

As Johnston's position comes under threat, his next job is to decide where he will best be situated to meet the enemy, and then to acquire as much information as he can about what the enemy is doing.

When he moves to support Beauregard, his first act as soon as he gets there is to pass active management of the fighting to Beauregard, because he is not acquainted with the troops' deployment and the local terrain. We're back to the significance of terrain again.

As the fighting begins, Johnston is in a central position with Beauregard, along the length of the Confederate deployment area. As it becomes clear that the Union forces have beaten the Rebels to the punch, Beauregard moves to the crisis point, while Johnston co-ordinates the movement of troops towards it. However, at this point it becomes unclear whether Beauregard or Johnston is directing the overall Rebel effort.

However, a quick look at Beauregard's own account, reveals that Johnston did indeed play a key role in directing the reinforcements to the appropriate place, at least that's what Beauregard himself admitted:

By this time, between half past two and 3 o'clock p.m., our re-enforcements pushed forward, and, directed by General Johnston to the required quarter...

Thus, once battle is joined the general's main task is both to anticipate where the enemy will strike and to anticipate where his forces can do the most good. No matter how good he has been in all the other analytical and managerial tasks outline in Johnston's official report, the test by which readers will judge him comes in this ability to second guess his opponent.

07 February 2008

George Washington's Casualties Part 3

Well, we've looked at the casualty rates of George Washington's battles, and those of the armies that faced him. Now, let's look at his greatest rival across the battlefield, General Sir William Howe.

First, I'll do the battles, then some off-the-cuff analysis.

Bunker Hill (1775) 36 percent
Long Island (1776) 2 percent
Harlem Heights (1776) 8 percent
White Plains (1776) 2 percent
Fort Washington (1776) 6 percent
Brandywine (1777) 6 percent
Germantown (1777) 4 percent
Total for 7 battles 5 percent

Compared with Washington's "butcher's bill", Howe is profligate indeed. However, he deserves some special consideration. In all but one of these engagements, Howe is the attacker, a role that often results in much heavier losses in the modern era. Furthermore, he gets a big boost from his severe casualties at Bunker Hill, when he commanded his smallest force in any battle. But even if you take that away from him, he still causes 4 percent casualties in 6 battles. According to the conventional wisdom, he avoided head-on confrontations after the terrible losses at Bunker Hill, relying on maneuver in turning movements such as at Long Island and Brandywine. Nonetheless, Washington is still better at keeping his men from harm.

06 February 2008

The American Way of Army Doctrine

Historian Brian McAllister Linn was on Book TV last weekend talking about how the United States Army has analysed the way it approaches its mission. He gave a talk describing the three schools of thought he identified in the army, focusing on the period between 1952 and 1962, when the army was coming to grips with its apparent marginalization in a world of Mutually-Assured Destruction. It's interesting, but I think the most important point is made right at the end, when he talks about how the present uses the past. It undescores my general view that history, especially in the United States, is politics by another means.

04 February 2008

Double Feature - Washington Part 2 and the Charge of the Light Brigade

Having established some data about Washington's casualty rates in battle, one now needs to put some perspective on those figures by looking at his contemporaries. Let's start with his opponents in his battles.

Long Island (1776) 2 percent
Harlem Heights (1776) 1 percent
Trenton (1776) 8 percent
Princeton (1777) 2 percent
Brandywine (1777) 6 percent
Germantown (1777) 4 percent
Monmouth (1778) 2 percent
Yorktown (1781) 5 percent
Total for 8 battles 3 percent

The total for eight battles is about the same. To be more precise, one could show that Washington is at 3.3 percent, while his opponents are 3.1 percent. Of course, there are all sorts of factors to take into account in analysing these figures, but let's continue to play around with data before we start drawing conclusion.


The BBC's Radio 4 has a show called "In Our Time" that is fascinating if you have only a little knowledge about the topic. I missed that a few months ago they covered the Charge of the Light Brigade. I'm not sure if the link works for North American visitors to the blog, but if you have a sketchy knowledge of the Crimean War and want to know more in an easily digestible form, point your browsers here.