Dr. X posts this from the Haight-Ashbury Armchair Generals' Club:
"Two shows on the History Channel the other night, back-to-back: First, Dogfights
, which uses well-done computer animations to help narrate famous air battles (you can see examples on their website). They have covered everything from the Red Baron to Phantoms vs. Migs over Vietnam, but this particular episode reviewed a naval engagement - the Battle Off Samar.
"As every schoolchild knows, the Battle Off Samar was not only the windup to the largest sea battle ever fought (the Battle of Leyte Gulf
), it was one of the greatest moment in U.S. naval history, as a small squadron of light U.S. ships drove off the main battle fleet of the Japanese Navy.
"That may seem like an exaggerated characterization, but it's actually true - the destroyer Johnston
and destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts
engaged the Japanese main battle fleet at point-blank range with both torpedo runs and shellfire, buying time for the vulnerable light aircraft carriers behind them to get out of range of the Japanese guns (a crewman's account of the battle is here
). Along with carrier planes they caused enough real damage (three heavy cruisers sunk, three damaged) that Admiral Kurita
turned back just when he could have gotten through and shelled MacArthur's beachheads. I thought the Dogfights
episode did real justice to this engagement, which has only recently received the attention it deserved, thanks to Hornfischer's Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
"This was followed by a show I'd not seen before, The Lost Evidence
, which used previously undiscovered German aerial recon photos to help narrate the story of the Battle of Stalingrad
"Watching them back to back as I worked on a needlepoint of the AC/DC logo, it occurred that these battles shared an important common element - in both cases, the greater strategist lost. Both Kurita and von Paulus
were regarded as good thinkers, men who could formulate a deep strategic plan.
"But strategy is what gets you to the fight, hopefully in an advantageous position, but not what wins it. So what does?
"1) A serious intention to fight, even against long odds. Ernest Evans, commander of the Johnston, famously told his crew: 'this is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm's way, and anyone who doesn't want to go along had better get off right now.' Chuikov
, the Soviet commander at Stalingrad was a realist, a man who understood he would have to trade lives for time. When Kruschev asked him how he interpreted his orders he said: 'We will defend the city or die in the attempt.' It brings to mind Montgomery's announcement to his generals at El Alamein that the withdrawal plans had been burned
. It focuses the mind.
"2) A willingness to throw out the playbook. The grandmaster Richard Reti said: 'I am not interested in correct play and judgement. I am always looking for exceptions.' Much of it looks obvious today, but Chuikov's Stalingrad tactics
were a departure from both Red Army orthodoxy and German 'best practices'. As the Germans came into the city they appeared to have all the advantages - air superiority, more firepower, more mobility, and more combat experience. But Chuikov figured out - quickly - how to make use of the advantages he had. Evans on the Johnston was likewise forced to invent new tactics - rushing among the enemy cruisers instead of staying back, steering toward their shell splashes to throw off their aim, and training his guns on their bridges.
"3) A determination to confront the psychology of the overdog. As the Japanese assembled a line of destroyers to launch a torpedo attack against the U.S. carriers, Evans steered the crippled Johnston to 'cross the T
' of the enemy formation. The decision cost him his ship, but broke up the attack and probably was the last straw for Kurita. At Stalingrad Chuikov explicitly sought to confront German confidence, trying to meet every attack with an immediate counter-attack, and attacking by stealth or at night whenever possible. This is not an academic point - the success of the Tet Offensive owed in large part to the overthrow of the idea that the U.S. military had the situation under control. The overdog psychology is a very vulnerable state of mind against a determined opponent, something our leaders need to keep in mind in Iraq.
"After the bodies are buried (or eaten by sharks), the battles become what we make of them. It is tempting to moralize about their cultural lessons - perhaps Samar and Stalingrad fit the American and Russian world views a little too well. In the American battle, a plucky little force drives off the WWII equivalent of the Death Star
, just like in the comic books. In the Russian battle a citizen army, thoughtless of the value of their own lives, won (and this is important to Russians) the biggest battle ever
"It is late and I cannot find the exact quotes, but two other thoughts come to mind in this context. The grandmaster David Bronstein (who knew Stalingrad well) once wrote something like - 'there is a point in the game where you can't analyze anymore, you just have to fight.'
"And Wellington is reputed to have responded at Waterloo, to an officer seeking reinforcements, 'we have reached the stage of the battle where each man must die where he stands.'
"From that moment forward, there is no need for strategy."