I was pretty hard last week on Admiral William F. Halsey (see “Halsey in the Dock,” September 20th, 2009). So let me, in my best scholarly-historian “on the one hand, on the other hand” fashion, make a case for a commander like the Bull.
I have a good friend in the army, an “06” in the armor branch, who once offered me a real insight. We tend to think of warfighting as exciting. Constant action. Shouting. Explosions. My friend the Colonel demurs. “In war,” he tells me, “stasis is the default setting.” In other words, people tend to stand around. They’re standing around because they don’t quite know what to do. Things are confusing. The intelligence reports are contradictory. Everyone’s tired and afraid in equal measure. And the result is inaction.
Someone has to step in and get things moving, and that someone is the commander. Military history–and especially the history of World War II–is filled with stories of great leaders who seized that moment. It might be nothing more than a pep talk, or a few well chosen curses (US officers tended to lead the way here), or it might simply mean exuding an aura of confidence. General Norman “Dutch” Cota, for example, managed to combine all three of those things–exhortation, confidence, and cursing–on Omaha Beach, delivering what has to be one of the pithiest and most effective battlefield speeches of all time:
“Well, goddamn it, if you’re Rangers get up and lead the way!”
And that is why, for all of Halsey’s misjudgments and rhetorical excesses, he remains in the command pantheon, at least as far as I’m concerned. When the nation–not just the military– was uncertain about how to proceed after Pearl Harbor, Halsey was ready to act. And because he was, so were a lot of other men in the U. S. Navy. He was a classic example of what students of land warfare like to call a hard charger. When Bull Halsey entered the room, no one was going to be “standing around” for long. Things were going to happen. He canceled that default setting. “Hit hard,” he said, “hit fast, hit often.” Good advice in wartime.
Still no excuse for that typhoon, however….
Now, how about it, readers? A list of your five greatest “hard chargers”–land, sea, and air?