SIR ISAAC NEWTON CALLED IT his “first law of motion,” and you’ve all heard some version of it. The colloquial rendition is that “an object in motion tends to remain in motion; an object at rest tends to stay at rest.” It’s true of a lot of things in life, not just physics. In general, we tend to do tomorrow what we did today and the day before.
It’s especially true of war. Ponder, for example, the fighting on Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. American forces landed there in November 1943 as part of Operation Cartwheel, General Douglas MacArthur’s multipronged effort to neutralize the big Japanese naval base at Rabaul, on New Britain Island. The combat on Bougainville stretched into an attenuated campaign, however, one that seemed to go on and on. Long after the war had left that area behind, men continued to die in the island’s steaming jungles and foreboding mountains.
Bougainville certainly mattered at the start. After U.S. forces had landed on New Georgia and Vella Lavella, Bougainville was the next stepping stone up the Solomons chain. Seizing the island would outflank Rabaul from the southeast. Meanwhile, MacArthur had carried out an intricate series of landings on northern New Guinea to threaten Rabaul from the west. Opportunity beckoned: if U.S. forces could capture or build enough airfields, they could launch devastating air raids on Rabaul from multiple directions, overloading Japanese defenses while making it impossible for the Imperial Japanese Navy to remain at the base.
And that’s pretty much how it went. Elements of the U.S. 3rd Marine Division landed at Cape Torokina on Bougainville on November 1. The Marines carved out a small bridgehead, built airstrips in December, and defended the perimeter against counterattack in March 1944. The U.S. formed a new Air Command, Solomons (AirSols) unit and was soon bombing Rabaul. By one reckoning, AirSols bombed Rabaul every good-weather day from February to May, one key factor forcing Japan’s navy to abandon the town for Truk in the Caroline Islands, 800 miles to the north.
So far, so good. But even after the reduction of Rabaul, the fighting dragged on. The Japanese withdrew into the island’s interior, where the Americans rooted them out in bloody fighting. They handed off Bougainville to Australian forces in November 1944, and the Aussies kept up the pressure, forcing the Japanese into tiny strongholds in the island’s north and south. By now, however, Bougainville defined the word “sideshow.” The war had moved on and was now more than 1,000 miles away, but Japanese forces were still in the field when Japan surrendered in August 1945.
While this later fighting is not easily justifiable, the war contained many other moments when inertia seemed to dominate strategy, when theater commanders doggedly stuck to the script even when situations changed. Think of American insistence on invading Peleliu in fall 1944, a landing whose necessity still generates controversy; or the strategic bombing campaign over Germany, which by 1945 was doing little more than bombing razed cities into smaller pieces of rubble; or perhaps the classic example, the sustained Allied offensive in Italy in 1944-45 after the fall of Rome.
The point is not to fault MacArthur or other commanders. It’s just the way war is. Once you start a campaign, you tend to continue it. You’re in contact with the enemy, you keep shooting. Strategic or not, it’s inertia. As the Americans and Australians found out on Bougainville, fighting the Japanese was bad enough, but fighting Newton was even worse. ✯