Letter From Military History – September 2013

By Michael W. Robbins
7/3/2013 • MH Editorial

Whose Fault Was It?
Surely there is much to learn from after-action reports or postwar interviews. The lessons of defeats and losses may be especially painful, but they may eventually prove to be of high value if they provide guidance for future policies and tactics that can lead to victories and save lives.

But there is a dark side to such after-the-fact assessments. Call it the blame game.

When things go wrong—especially on a large scale, with lives, resources and national power at stake—many people just naturally start searching for a scapegoat, an individual player or a cabal that committed a disastrous error through ineptitude, inexperience, poor judgment or malicious, even treasonous, intent. In the wake of the wipeout at the Little Bighorn; the bloody chaos of Gallipoli; the string of slaughters on the Western Front (Ypres, the Somme, Verdun); the big surprise at Pearl Harbor; the big surprises in Korea; the overwhelming French defeat at Dien Bien Phu; the Vietnam War, etc., it is tempting to heap the blame on Lt. Col. George A. Custer or Field Marshal John French or Admiral Husband Kimmel or General Henri Navarre or General William Westmoreland.

Historians and journalists have expended lakes of ink in efforts to indict the miscreants who lost the American colonies in the 18th century or who lost China in 1949—as if one or two individuals could single-handedly cause an international catastrophe. But, tellingly, it is rare for anyone on the winning side to suggest that their vaunted heroic victory was brought about by a blunder on the losing side: Did the Japanese find a scapegoat for their disastrous loss of aircraft carriers at Midway in 1942? Was Rommel to blame for the Germans’ defeat in North Africa in 1943? The one-sidedness of the blame game reveals what it really is: a simplistic way to understand enormously complex events, with thousands of participants and uncountable decisions, inputs, influences, acts and events. It is an understandable if inadequate way to form some order out of chaos. And that doesn’t even take account of the inevitable and well-known “fog of war.”

It is surely true that some key individuals may have blundered in a big way. And scapegoating is, on the evidence, an inevitable human impulse. But the blame game is certain to lead to a distortion of the complicated, real-life history of what happened.

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