Letter from MHQ Autumn 2010 | HistoryNet MENU

Letter from MHQ Autumn 2010

By William W. Horne
8/10/2010 • MHQ Issues

This issue of MHQ amply illustrates an axiom of war: Risk-taking and innovation can win battles, but derring-do unleavened by reflection can lead to disaster. Several military men in our pages boldly tipped the balance their way. In the seventh century, the Muslim leader Mu’awiyah concluded the easiest path to conquest was over water, and commissioned a huge fleet with which to destroy Christendom. He did not succeed, but an Arab navy expanded his empire and threatened the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Twelve centuries later, near the end of the Union’s bedeviled Red River campaign, a clever army engineer came to the rescue when Federal gunboats became stuck, thanks to the Confederates manipulating the river’s water level. With Rebel cavalry closing fast, Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey quickly built a few wing dams, raising the water just enough to get the squadron back down the Red.

Forty years later, Brig. Gen. Arthur MacArthur (Douglas’s father) created an incredibly effective counterinsurgency strategy in the Philippine War of 1899–1902, essentially quelling an Afghanistan-like “insurrection” in three short years. Similarly, a well-intentioned T. E. Lawrence helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, pioneering guerrilla warfare tactics that are now commonplace.

Mu’awiyah, Lawrence, and MacArthur had clear goals for their campaigns. In both the Philippine War and the Arab Revolt, however, myopic political leaders in the United States and Britain led their nations into wars for which they had no legitimate endgame. In the Philippines, belatedly realizing our mistake in crushing a nationalistic uprising, we quickly demilitarized and left the islands wide open to the depredations of the Japanese in World War II; in the five months after Pearl Harbor, 30,000 American soldiers and 100,000 Filipinos perished. Well before Lawrence of Arabia triumphantly paraded through Damascus in 1918, Whitehall had divvied up the Middle East, arbitrarily drawing lines on a map that would ensure the region would be riddled with violence for decades to come.

Even good intentions are never enough, alone, to support the decision to go to war. Thomas Fleming drives that home in his Point of View essay, “Blinded by Hope,” an overview of our government’s wishful thinking as it has engaged in war after war without clearly considering the bloody reality, or making certain there is a clear goal. Taken together, these stories make the case that while guts and ingenuity can win the day in many a battle, the question should always be asked: To what end?



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