Skip to comments.U.S. Tactics May Seem Original, But History Offers Some Lessons
Posted on 03/28/2003 9:13:45 AM PST by Stand Watch Listen
Patton's Sweep Is Cause for Confidence; While Bombings Didn't 'Awe' in Vietnam
Patton's Sweep Is Cause for Confidence; While Bombings Didn't 'Awe' in Vietnam
By Carla Anne Robbins, Greg Jaffe and Dan Morse
WASHINGTON -- Gen. Tommy Franks, who is running the war against Iraq, says it's being fought "unlike any other in history." That may well be true of the overall war plan, which calls for a lightning drive to the capital, heavy reliance on precision bombing, a collapse of the Hussein regime and a mop up of remaining Iraqi forces afterward.
But key elements of the campaign have echoes in other wars. The lessons from past conflicts -- some heartening, some sobering -- help illuminate the risks and opportunities the U.S. military faces as it prepares for a crucial attack on Baghdad.
The U.S. Army's current sprint across miles of open terrain, bypassing population centers, has several successful antecedents in American military history, from Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson's campaign through the Shenandoah Valley in the Civil War to Gen. George Patton's dash across France and Belgium in World War II. But another characteristic of the current campaign -- moving out so quickly that resupply lines are stretched tight -- has brought trouble, and occasionally disaster, in other campaigns. In World War II, Adolf Hitler sent three million soldiers -- roughly 70% of his forces -- into Russia in a "lightning war" that was shattered by crumbling logistics and harassment of supply lines by small Russian units.
Even the high-tech "shock and awe" bombing campaign is tethered to a controversial past. Military strategist Harlan Ullman, who helped coin the shock-and-awe phrase in the mid-1990s, traces the roots of the strategy, in part, to the two nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan to hasten the end of World War II.
Mr. Ullman says that the U.S. now possesses the capacity to break an enemy's will to fight by massively attacking targets from land, sea, air and even cyberspace. But so far, the shock-and-awe aspect of the war against Iraq has been mostly a large-scale bombing assault on Baghdad, he says. And the lessons there -- from Germany in World War II and Vietnam during the 1960s -- is that by itself, heavy bombing often stiffens resistance, rather than breaking it.
Here's a look at how the main features of the week-old war in Iraq stack up in the annals of recent military history:
Supplying the Troops
Long supply lines have often been a problem, even for powerful armies. History's main cautionary tale may be Hitler's drive into Russia. At the end of a severely protracted supply line, German troops ran into trouble. They battled their way into Stalingrad and then got pinned down in a vicious, house-to-house battle lasting 66 days. In the end, Hitler's forces found themselves surrounded and starving in the dead of winter. In February 1943, an entire German army group surrendered: 23 generals, 2,000 officers and at least 130,000 troops. Historians consider the Battle of Stalingrad the turning point of World War II.
The vulnerability of supply lines, and the strategy of attacking them instead of an army's main force, have been facets of warfare since at least the days of the Roman Empire. Both Hannibal of Carthage and Julius Caesar of Rome grappled with huge supply-line problems, and sought to disrupt the lines of their opponents.
Some American generals have proved themselves more adept at handling ambitious assaults with long and sometimes even nonexistent supply lines. After occupying Atlanta in September 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched some 62,000 men to the seaport of Savannah, Ga. Enroute, Gen. Sherman's troops were cut off from other Union forces and lived off the land. Meanwhile, they burned crops, destroyed railroads and factories and reached Savannah with 25,000 bales of captured cotton.
Now, as U.S. forces move toward Baghdad, which will be the tip of perhaps a 250-mile-long supply line from the base of operations in Kuwait, there are new fears that commanders may have a hard time keeping the troops supplied with ammunition, food and water. Yet some planners argue that, in today's circumstances, the danger is minimal. "We have air superiority; our aircraft are going to be able to fly over supply lines," says retired Lt. Gen. William "Gus" Pagonis, the chief of U.S. Army logistics during the 1991 Gulf War.
Although Iraqi irregular forces are able to harass the supply lines, he argues, the main forces beginning to encircle the Iraqi capital aren't at risk of running out of gas, food or ammunition. That's because U.S. forces now control at least three major airfields inside Iraq and can airlift supplies to the outskirts of Baghdad on an urgent basis, if necessary. Indeed, reports from Baghdad Thursday indicated that the first resupply plane from Kuwait landed at the Tallil airbase in southern Iraq, which was captured by allied forces moving north and now can be used as a logistical base.
The modern U.S. military resembles a modern corporation, with extensive ability to perform just-in-time inventory delivery. At the end of the first Gulf War, Gen. Pagonis began using global-position-system technology to keep track of the flow of goods to forces in the field. GPS, combined with laptops and other new technology, has now made relatively smooth a famously difficult process.
The guerrilla tactics Iraqi forces have employed -- hitting behind forward lines and using fighters in civilian clothes -- remind many Americans of the tactics the Viet Cong used in the Vietnam War. But Iraqis may be following a different precedent from closer to home: tactics used for decades by the Palestinians and Lebanese in Israeli-occupied territories. Those guerrilla campaigns have long occupied prime time on Iraqi television and were glorified in official propaganda and textbooks for millions of children.
In Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s, the Hezbollah Shiite guerrillas concentrated on the weakest point of the Israeli military presence -- moving vehicles and convoys. They planted bombs by the roadside, attacked these vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades and made sure to record gruesome pictures whenever they managed to kill Israeli soldiers or take them prisoner. In one episode that demoralized many Israelis and pushed Israel toward a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah guerrillas posed for pictures while holding the severed head of an Israeli officer.
Another practice of Iraqi guerrillas -- hiding among the civilian population -- also seems to be borrowed from Lebanese and Palestinian militants. Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the al Aqsa Brigades have been firing into Israeli cities and launching suicide missions from densely populated towns and refugee camps. An attempt by Israel to stamp out such groups with an assault on the Jenin refugee camp last year led to heavy casualties both among the civilians and the Israeli troops, prompting a world-wide outcry.
Coalition forces also accuse the Iraqi loyalists of killing residents of the allied-controlled areas who agree to cooperate with British and U.S. authorities. That's likely to undermine both allied plans to get Iraqi oil workers back to the oil fields and a project to use the Iraqi Trade Ministry's distribution system to push through humanitarian supplies.
The first Palestinian intifadah in the 1980s offers a model for these tactics. At that time, Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement quickly took control of the Palestinian street by forcing Palestinian police and local administration officials to resign, and by killing anyone suspected of collaborating with the occupation authorities
However, historian Stanley Karnow says the Vietnam experience raises a tough question for Iraq's guerrilla fighters: How many are willing to die for their cause? In his interviews with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong commanders after the war, he says, they told him they would have been willing to sustain unlimited numbers of casualties, and fight for five or 10 years more -- anything so as not to be defeated by the Americans. If Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein are willing to die en masse, as the Vietnamese were, then the U.S. is in trouble, he thinks. But the tactic won't be so successful if they aren't.
The U.S. tactic of skipping ahead of enemy concentrations on the way to an ultimate target was used successfully in World War II, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur island-hopped toward Japan and simply avoided enemy strongholds. The MacArthur strategy of "leapfrogging" saved thousands of American lives by bypassing Japanese-held islands where there were heavy forces dug in for battle and then invading more lightly defended islands in their rear. Gen. MacArthur then constructed airfields to launch attacks that cut off Japanese supply lines. "Our strong points were gradually starved out," one former Japanese intelligence officer was quoted as saying in William Manchester's book "American Caesar."
In the European theater in World War II, Gen. Patton's Third Army swept across France and Belgium, consuming 350,000 gallons of fuel a day and leaving German troops in his wake. Gen. Patton kept going, sometimes ordering his men to "divert" supplies intended for other army units. At other times, the Americans ran on captured German fuel. Gen. Patton relied on U.S. airpower, then unchallenged by Germany's ravaged forces, to protect his flanks, in the same way that Gen. Franks today depends on U.S. warplanes to try to take care of Iraqi attacks behind the front lines.
In November 1944, with three days notice, Gen. Patton scrapped his battle plan, turned his units abruptly to the north and helped defeat Germany's last major armored attack of the war in the Battle of the Bulge. Sometimes he directed the traffic himself, standing in the muddy rutted road, wearing a parka with a .45 pistol strapped on his belt. "Drive like hell," he would tell his men.
Other precedents aren't so encouraging. Russian troops left in the wake of Hitler's quick drive toward Moscow helped turn the German offensive into a disaster for the Nazis.
In 1870, the Prussian army lay siege to Paris, the capital of France, conquered it and ended the Franco-Prussian war. But the idea of focusing on an enemy capital as the ultimate target, while leaving the rest of the country unconquered, also has created problems. That, some historians feel, was a big mistake of Union commanders in the early days of the Civil War, when they focused on taking the Confederate capital of Richmond. When Ulysses S. Grant took over the Union army in March 1864, he shifted the focus to taking out enemy soldiers rather than the enemy's capital, and the North's fortunes turned.
The U.S. assault on Baghdad also has a harrowing precedent. In 1916, during World War I, British Major Gen. Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend led a force of thousands up the Euphrates River for what was supposed to be a quick assault on Baghdad. Employing what he called the "principle of economy of force," he figured his troops would blow past the Arab and Turkish forces in what was then known as Mesopotamia. But the British underestimated their enemy and were forced by heavy resistance to dig in at the city of Al Kut.
"Reinforcement will be pushed up to you with every possible speed," Gen. Townshend was promised by his commanding officer, but the relief never arrived. The British were surrounded, besieged and defeated.
About a year later, a different British and colonial Indian army, four times the size of Gen. Townshend's, resumed the Mesopotamia campaign and finally conquered Baghdad.
Key elements of the U.S. war plan in Iraq have been tried in earlier wars, to mixed results.
• Bypassing population centers in a rush: Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson did the same in his 1862 Civil War campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, leading to early successes.
• Long supply lines: They became a significant problem when Germans invaded Russia in World War II.
• Guerrilla warfare: Iraqis may be borrowing tactics that worked for fighters opposing Israel in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last 20 years.
• 'Shock and Awe': A much more extreme version -- atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 -- helped bring World War II to a successful end for American forces.
-- John J. Fialka, Leila Abboud and Jacob Schlesinger contributed to this article.
This truth lies buried in the the middle of inapt comparisons and swooning conjectures.
I agree. The comparisons being made are illustrative, but the author does not have a clue as to how modern logistics (supply-chain) works for the military. It's not only "just-in-time" logistics, if the material or resource can be delivered by any means, it will get there.
If they need stuff, and it isn't getting through via convoy, the commanders will find out what is missing as soon as the convoy is stopped. In every unit, there are people getting into the net and asking "where's my stuff, where's my stuff," and there are people in central command looking at the overall theatre and asking "where's everyone's stuff," and the lag on this info is a day at most. There are other folks who are looking at predictive and causitive factors and wondering (i.e. modeling) about trends. Onesie and twosie failures are going to be taken in stride, even if the media has a cow over them.
Not that it's necessarily all rosy for the individual guys & gals at the pointy end. Have you sent a care package today?
yeah, like he said...poor guys must have been on the hook to deliver an article about the supply "problem".
I could pick out other errors, but what the heck. What really ticks me off, though, is the constant harping on the 1916 Iraq campaign. Yes, the British lost. However, why don't we hear about the 1940 Iraq campaign? When Iraq tried to join the Nazis but beseiged British forces actually broke out on their own and defeated their besiegers, taking Iraq off the war map for the duration of the war despite attempted Lufwaffe reinforcements sent personally by Hermann Goering? Could it be that - gasp - this campaign does not fit into the media's agenda to scare people and paint the darkest picture possible?
Nah, couldn't be that.
He assaulted the capital, leaving his rear unprotected, with long supply lines.
He successfully captured the city with troops from the US Army and Marines. The battle is remembered by the Marines as the quest for the Halls Of Montezuma.
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