The Illusion of a Controllable War
In the [September 2012] Interview with Colonel Andrew Bacevich, U.S. Army (Ret.), as part of his response to the question, Is there such a thing as a righteous war? he says, “The notion that war can be controlled is an illusion.” The article “‘Hail Mary’ in Holland” [by John C. McManus, September] addresses this in a most poignant way when on P. 33 [McManus writes] the survivors of the crossing “had become ruthless killing machines” or [as Captain Henry Keep recalled] “fanatics rendered crazy by rage and the lust for killing, men who temporarily forgot the meaning of fear. It is in such moments that great feats of history occur.” Could they have been controlled at that moment? I think not. [General of the Army William Tecumseh] Sherman described any and all actions of this type most succinctly in three words: “War is hell.” There is no civilized way to describe it.
I might add that history is written by the victors. We kill German soldiers trying to surrender at Normandy and the Waal River crossing, and it is considered “great.” The Germans kill those that surrender at the Battle of the Bulge, and it is deemed a travesty. Could the first two acts have caused the third? Germans have memories.
Finally [re: “Seeing War,” September], there is no media type that can pass on what war is really like. Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan come close, but only by being there in person can one feel what it’s really like. When media can let one feel the shock waves of artillery shells exploding nearby; hear not only the distant muzzle report of enemy fire but also the continuous crack of bullets going faster than sound as they pass by; smell dust mixed with human blood; listen to the moans and shrieks of the wounded; or feel the ache of limbs freezing in the cold water of a trench or a foxhole, then and only then might [such depictions] come close…maybe.
Major Douglas W. Roberts
U.S. Army (Ret.)
Pagosa Springs, Colo.
Regarding your article on the impact of privateers on the outcome of the War of 1812 [“‘Swarms of Privateers,’” by Wade G. Dudley, July]: The author suggests that the economic pressure exerted by American privateers brought Great Britain to the negotiating table. From a British perspective the war had by 1814 brought the United States to the brink of destruction: Her overseas trade was destroyed, her economy devastated, her Navy swept from the sea, her capital a smoking ruin, her Army defeated outside Washington and in Canada, and the New England states plotting to secede from the Union.
Arguably what saved the United States was an understandable British preoccupation with Napoléon Bonaparte and events in Europe, and after 20 years of war with France most people were tired and glad to be rid of yet another unnecessary little war. The land war on both sides was categorized by strokes of genius tempered by acts of military folly. [Arthur Wellesley, Duke of] Wellington was offered and declined the opportunity of command in America. It would be interesting to contemplate the outcome if the “Iron Duke” had gotten to grips with the land campaign in America as he had in Spain.
I appreciated Kevin Baker’s story about Alfred Thayer Mahan. However, toward the end of his article he stated, “[the United States] allowed Cuba to be turned into a mob-run brothel.” Not only is this a gross misstatement, but also I would think it seriously demeaning to anyone of Cuban ancestry.
Also he stated, “We ran a long, brutal campaign [Philippine-American War] that killed up to a fifth of all Filipinos.” The campaign was indeed brutal, but it was not overly long (less than three years), and the most extreme figures estimate there were about 25,000 insurrectionist deaths and perhaps 250,000 civilian deaths. While this is a staggering figure, and not to be denigrated, the population of the Philippines at that time was about 7.5 million people, so the figure doesn’t represent anywhere near 20 percent of the total population.
Thanks for your great magazine and a commitment to the truth.
Neil A. Haglund
Kevin Baker responds: My assertion that we allowed Cuba “to be turned into a mob-run brothel” refers to the many representatives of the American mob who flocked to Cuba—especially during the Batista dictatorship—and whom our government recruited to attempt to overthrow the Castro dictatorship.
I’m intrigued to hear that Haglund does not consider a three-year guerrilla insurgency “overly long,” but after the official end of the insurrection in 1902, groups known as the “irreconcilables” kept fighting until 1913, making it a 14-year insurgency. Ironclad statistics about the number of deaths during this conflict are scarce, but many are much higher than the ones Haglund mentions. Historian John M. Gates put the number of dead Filipino soldiers at 34,000, while Max Boot, in his book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2003), quotes one author of the time who estimated that there were at least 1 million Filipino deaths. Filipino-American historian E. San Juan Jr. cites at least 1.4 million Filipino fatalities.
And I’m baffled by what Haglund means when he writes, “Our stated goal was to bring freedom to both places, which we did, without coercion.” How free anyone can be living under the thumb of individuals such as Sam Giancana, Meyer Lansky and their friends? And to claim the Philippines were not “coerced” is nonsensical. The Filipinos proclaimed their own government after we helped liberate them from the Spanish empire. We responded by suppressing it and waging a savage war to see it stayed suppressed. The American troops consigned to this sordid task sang, “Underneath the starry flag/Civilize them with a Krag.” They were under no illusions about freedom or coercion.
I found Robert M. Citino’s article [“India’s Blitzkieg,” May] on the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War most interesting, especially as I recall an illuminating discussion on the war with an Indian army engineer major, whom I met at RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire, where we were attending separate courses in February 1973. This article emphasized the achievements of the Indian army and the difficulties faced by their engineers as described to me a little more than a year after they occurred.
May I point out, however, that the “British-built Centurion” main battle tanks (MBTs) in your main photograph are not Centurions at all but Indian-built Vickers Vijayanta MBTs—a UK-designed tank built under license in India.
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