“That no instruction should have been drawn from constant and adverse experience; that the same confidence should have repeatedly grown from the same failures”
------Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
As noted in the previous post, Gibbon’s observations concerning Europe’s persistent commitment to failure and folly reveal a truly troubling aspect of human nature. The internal logic governing every conflict in which sacrifice must be vindicated by more sacrifice quickly assumes command of the commanders. The conflict in short order assumes its own justification often pushing the conflict past the ‘sublime’ into the ‘ridiculous’, conflicts that can transcend years, decades, even centuries. What is remarkable is that so little instruction is drawn from the experience. Experience, it appears, does not teach; lessons go unlearned.
A few brief recent examples may be instructive concerning the changing nature of war and the lessons unlearned. The American Civil War was a bloody affair, killing nearly 600,000 men as a result of poor sanitation and treatment of wounds, but also because the tactics of war were not equal to the innovations in weapons and armament. With the introduction of the mini-ball and later the repeating rifle weapons became much deadlier at longer ranges producing horrendous casualties whenever a general ordered a frontal assault on an entrenched defensive position. The Federals suffered great loss at Fredericksburg, Lee and his Confederates were to do the same a few months later at Gettysburg. Yet as late as 1864 we find General Sherman making just such an assault at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia with the wholly predictable results.
One would think that lessons would be learned. But even though the European powers had observers on both sides of the line during the American Civil War, as well as the British engagements in the Boer conflict in South Africa later in the century, the lessons went unheeded. Accordingly throughout the First World War the commanding Generals could think of no better strategy than to amass thousands of men and have them walk in tight formations into the teeth of machine gun fire. One would assume that one or two encounters would be sufficient to teach a lesson that should have been learned decades earlier by simple observation. Experience, it appears, proved powerless to instruct, and the world was left to witness attack after attack for four long years. At the Battle of the Somme alone the British suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day, but the battle raged on for another two months. Repeatedly employing the same tactics both sides suffered losses of over a million men before it was over, with very little ground gained or lost. As late as 1917 at Ypres, the British force advanced again this time gaining only a few miles at a cost of a quarter of a million men before they were driven back. In the end it wasn’t the military that found a solution but the civilian leadership that demanded the introduction of tanks and mortars in a last ditch effort to break the stalemate. Such is the folly of war.
April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. From the beginning of the recent conflicts in the Middle East we have been assured by our leadership, citing the examples of Algeria and Viet Nam, that we will win these ‘wars’ against an ever growing insurgency throughout the region. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen and Syria the Middle East is exploding before our very eyes as the insurgent forces gather strength. Still we employ many of the same tactics, losing in the bargain the hearts and minds of those in the region. Not only have we failed to learn the military lessons, but we failed to learn the more important historical lesson: that as is in the case of the Crusades so it was with Algeria and Viet Nam. We lost those conflicts, it was in all the papers. Experience has proven powerless to instruct.