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Letter From Military History - July 2014

By Stephen Harding 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: April 30, 2014 
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Assuming the Best

History attests that nations go to war for many reasons—political aspirations, moral certainty, religious fervor, the hope of financial or territorial gain, and sometimes for the very survival of their people, culture and institutions.

Whether a nation is on the offensive or defensive, its ability to successfully conduct martial operations must be based on thorough and competent planning. Throughout history military staffs have therefore sought to build their plans upon an accurate determination of their own forces' strengths and weaknesses, and on an equally rigorous estimation of their enemy's intentions and capabilities.

When accurate information is scarce, however, military planners often fall back on a very human trait—they rely on assumptions.

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Logic, experience and common sense support certain assumptions, of course. It is safe to assume, for example, that a large and populous nation that seeks to be a maritime power but does not have year-round access to ice-free ports will covet the harbors of neighboring states blessed with warmer climates. Or if an enemy has no amphibious capability, one probably need not fear invasion from the sea. Likewise, the threat of aerial bombardment is minimal if a foe lacks an air force.

Yet history, and military history in particular, is replete with examples of assumptions—made by politicians, generals and civilians—that ultimately proved worse than just incorrect; they precipitated disaster.

Monarchs and elected leaders who failed to secure or maintain their nations' military preparedness have assumed they could simply purchase the necessary weapons and equipment, should danger threaten, only to have that vital materiel end up in the hands of their victorious enemy. Commanders who perceived themselves of a superior culture, ethnicity or military capability, and who assumed their poorly equipped and unblooded soldiers were nonetheless inherently more capable than those of an "inferior" enemy, have been shocked by the swiftness of their own defeat. And noncombatant civilians who were persuaded to view their nation's war as a lofty crusade, and who assumed the actual business of combat was therefore noble, heroic or even poetic, have been rudely disabused of such nonsensical notions by the brutally honest and shockingly revelatory writings of those who actually fought.

In war, then, as in peace, assumptions most often prove the realm of the haughty, the ill informed and the poorly prepared.


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