Stop with the Hindsight ... Or Should We Rerun All Our Wars?

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Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I , was published by Basic Books last year. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

I am disturbed by the lack of thoroughness in the much publicized probe of who is to blame for the terrorist attack on 9/11/2001. Why stop with the current war? Why not go back and weigh in the balance the judgment of our leaders in the opening rounds of America's previous wars?

Let's start with the American Revolution. John Adams frequently admitted he knew nothing about military matters. That did not stop him from being a principal player in perpetrating the disastrous first year of the War for Independence. The central idea of the Continental Congress's strategy was a"general action" -- one big battle -- that would end the war quickly in America's favor. On paper, the rebels had the manpower to overwhelm the presumably small army that Britain would be able to send to their soil. Militia -- brave virtuous farmers who would race to the battle from their firesides -- would turn out by the thousands and easily defeat the spiritless"mercenaries" in George III's army. There was no need for a large regular army, which might endanger American liberty.

Imagine everyone's surprise when a British fleet of 400 ships showed up in New York harbor in July of 1776 and put ashore an army of 33,000 men -- some ten thousand more than General George Washington had in his mostly militia army. The royal army proceeded to thrash the Americans every time they got close to them. The militia ran away by the thousands and did not stop until they had reached the security of their firesides in Connecticut and Massachusetts. A desperate Washington retreated into New Jersey, where he called on the 17,000 militia on the state's rolls to turn out to fight the invader. A mere 1,000 showed up, and most of them went home in a few days.

General Washington rescued us from this idiotic strategy. In the midst of defeat and disarray, he kept his head and announced that henceforth, the American army would never risk a general action. Henceforth, they would"protract the war." As for the militia, Washington realized they would never fight until they saw a trained regular American army in the field, capable of confronting British regulars with cannon, cavalry and bayonets. For the rest of the war, which lasted another five years, Washington made sure this"Continental" army stayed in the game until we won a knockout victory at Yorktown in 1781.

Even more dolorous was the distance between reality and assumption in the opening days of the Civil War. When the secessionist southerners in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on the American flag over Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln called out 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. He apparently thought the muscular idealists of the North could subdue the effete slave owners of the South in three months. Alas, the 90 day time frame forced Abe to order his generals to invade Virginia before the untrained enlistees went home. Confident Republican congressmen rode out to Bull Run with the Union amateurs to watch the fun -- and joined the mob of blue-clad refugees fleeing back to Washington DC after their horrendous defeat. It dawned on Lincoln that he was in a war that eventually cost 600,000 dead.

World War I began with a presidential assumption that made Lincoln's 90-days-to-victory look owlishly wise. President Woodrow Wilson called on America to declare war on Germany presuming that he would not have to send a single American soldier to France. Brainwashed by British propaganda, he thought the war was as good as won. His army chief of staff put a memo in the files to this effect, a month after Congress voted for war. The Democratic leader of the Senate, questioning the reason for an emergency appropriation of $3 billion, said to the Army's spokesman:"Good lord, you're not going to send soldiers over there, are you?"

Add to this fiasco the arrival of British and French military missions who cried:"We want men, men, men!" and admitted the Germans were winning the war. Throw in a conference with British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, who told Wilson about the secret treaties the Allies had signed, dividing up Germany's African colonies and Turkey's Middle Eastern provinces and you have a benumbed president realizing his crusade to make the world safe for democracy was just another war to make the battered globe safer for imperialism. The eventual death toll was 50,300 dead in a mere five months of fighting on the western front.

On the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had long since shed Wilson's idealistic illusions. But he clung to some fairly serious unrealities of his own. One was the racist conviction that the Japanese were terrible pilots and mediocre sailors. It was their bad eyesight and monkey-like forebrains, don't you know? Desperate to stop Adolf Hitler's rampage through Russia, FDR cut off Japan's flow of oil from the United States to provoke a clash that would get the U.S. into the war against Tokyo's ally through"the back door," as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes called it.

We all know what happened next: The December 7, 1941, Japanese assault that sank battleships and destroyers in Pearl Harbor and killed 3200 American sailors. Talk about embarrassment! It was especially acute, when we factor in President Roosevelt's knowledge that the Japanese were going to attack us somewhere. We had broken their codes and knew they were committed to war. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House at 1 p.m. on December 7."He was white as a sheet," Knox later told his naval aide."He expected to get hit but not hurt."

Korea? Here the big blunder took place several months before war began, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced that the United States did not consider the peninsula part of its sphere of vital interests. It was a virtual invitation to a communist assault and they accepted it with alacrity. When President Harry S.Truman brushed aside Acheson's grievous misstatement and sent in American troops, he discovered that he had only lightly armed, semi- trained soldiers from the army of occupation in Japan to counter a North Korean army, equipped with tanks and heavy artillery. The U.S. Army was forced to retreat to a toehold around the port of Pusan and begin creating an army to repel the invaders and restore American prestige.

Vietnam? Let us simply say President John F. Kennedy badly underestimated the staying power of the Viet Cong guerillas, the political and military fragility of the South Vietnamese and the grim resolution of the North Vietnamese army. The war can be summed up in a 1966 conversation I had with my friend Major Charles Adams, back from his first tour in Vietnam. I was writing a history of West Point and had acquired a deep respect for Charlie's opinions. He had led an airborne company in the Korean War and was, in my opinion, the epitome of the soldier who could think as well as fight.

"Are we going to win out there?" I asked."Not any time soon," Charlie said in his blunt Texas way."Why not?" I said, astonished."Because the North Viets have got experienced sergeants. In the South they take a guy out of a rice paddy, slap some stripes on his sleeve, and tell him he's a sergeant. He isn't and won't be for maybe five years. It's the sergeants that win the battles, Tom."

Is there an answer to this catalogue of wrong assumptions? I found it one night in 1970, talking to ex- President Harry S. Truman. We began discussing America's various wars, about which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. We eventually got around to noting some of the mistakes we made in the past."Always remember this, Tom," Mr. Truman said."Any six year old's hindsight is worth a president's foresight."