Monday, June 07, 2010

Over-Rated Military “Geniuses”
Part I
The following is a list, with a brief discussion of two Military, so-called “Geniuses”, who in my opinion are spectacularly overrated.

Gustavus Aldolphus 1594-1632.

Gustavus Aldolphus

Gustavus Aldolphus was the Swedish King who led, for a short period of time, the “Protestant” side in the Thirty Years War. I have referred to him in previous posts, more specifically one discussing his non-existent “Great Victory” at the battle of Lutzen in 1632. In which it was pointed out that the story of a “Great Victory” relies on myth, hero worship and what amounts to outright fabrication to concoct. But then Gustavus Aldolphus’ entire reputation is based on myth making and what amounts to fabrication.

Several writers have elevated Gustavus Aldolphus into one of the “Great Captains” of history. In other words one of a small number of the greatest commanders of all time.1 What they base it on is not the actual doings of Gustavus Aldolphus but the doings of a fictional, largely nonexistent Gustavus Aldolphus.

For example Gustavus Aldolphus is given the entire credit for allegedly revolutionizing his military armed forces and creating a virtual military revolution.2 Aside from the fact, and it is a fact, that this alleged military revolution is overdrawn, The changes in the military forces of Sweden were NOT from the brain of the King but mainly from those around him and Gustavus Aldolphus had little to do with them. But then giving the King credit for other peoples achievements is part of the myth of the fictional Gustavus Aldolphus.

As for Gustavus Aldolphus’ actual conduct of operations. Well a very studied and cultivated effort is required to ignore what actually happened in those operations. A major effort must be made NOT to understand the actual conduct of those operations except through the prism of accepting that Gustavus Aldolphus is one of the greatest soldiers ever. Thus a most determined effort is required to not understand what actually happened and what it tells us about Gustavus Aldolphus’ conduct of military operations. Thus ignorance and blindness is demanded least reality intrude.

Thus Gustavus Aldolphus’ actual conduct of the Livonian war, 1617-1629, is ignored in favour of fantasy, and airy phrases take the place of actual analysis of the King’s operations in the war. In point of fact Gustavus Aldolphus’ handling of the operations while competent was not brilliant. In fact Gustavus Aldolphus was repeatedly thwarted and defeated in open battle on more than one occasion. Nothing in his handling of his army during this 12 year war indicates military genius, much less Gustavus Aldolphus being one of the greatest generals in history.3

Once Gustavus Aldolphus entered the Thirty Years War, he became a figure of myth, which was elaborated and turned into a veritable cult that reached truly spectacular depths of sycophantic hero worship after Gustavus Aldolphus’ death in 1632.

During that war Gustavus Aldolphus won one truly spectacular victory. The battle of Breitenfeld, in 1631, which elevated him to heights of worship few humans have enjoyed before of since. Afterwards Gustavus Aldolphus faced the great Czech general Wallenstein who right until the day Gustavus Aldolphus died at Lutzen in 1632, usually out manoeuvred, out thought and out fought Gustavus Aldolphus. Now since Wallenstein is almost always rated far far lower on the totem pole of military excellence than Gustavus Aldolphus just how was this possible?4

For example after Breitenfeld, the Emperor recalled Wallenstein who rebuilt the Imperial army and embarked on a war of manoeuvre against Gustavus Aldolphus. The central part of this war of manoeuvre was Wallenstein manoeuvring Gustavus Aldolphus into the city of Nuremburg where Gustavus Aldolphus suffered heavy losses due to starvation and disease and eventually desertion. Wallenstein’s plan was to force Gustavus Aldolphus into attacking his fortified camp. Gustavus Aldolphus was eventually compelled to do so and was defeated.5

After that Gustavus Aldolphus abandoned Nuremberg and thinking the campaign over for the year settled into winter quarters. Wallenstein instead invaded Saxony, Gustavus Aldolphus’ ally and compelled Gustavus Aldolphus to come north to save his ally. The result was the battle of Lutzen where Gustavus Aldolphus got killed and it appears that once again Wallenstein’s general ship was better than Gustavus Aldolphus’.6

As I mentioned before nothing in Gustavus Aldolphus’ previous military career, objectively indicates military brilliance, so it can’t be said that Gustavus Aldolphus was simply off his game or past his peak. The simple fact is that Wallenstein was better than Gustavus Aldolphus at general ship. This of course has to be either denied or more usually simply ignored.

In the 19th century the campaigns etc, of Gustavus Aldolphus became a cliché at military staff colleges; acclaimed as the height of military skill and genius by a determined act of self lobotomy, which was required in order to ignore what the actual facts were telling you.

Douglas McArthur 1880-1964.

Douglas McArthur

General Douglas, “I will return” McArthur is overrated mainly by Americans who like those who celebrated Gustavus Aldolphus manage to not understand actual events and take refuge in childish notions that “Great” men do everything.

Perhaps the best example of this the Manchester’s hagiography American Caesar.7 The book is basically a tendentious collection of press excerpts from McArthur’s fan club.

McArthur’s reputation is based on his conduct during World War II in the pacific and his conduct during the Korean war, as seen to the prism of McArthur’s effective propaganda machine which never tired of celebrating his alleged brilliance and stroking McArthur’s vast ego.

To get to his conduct during World War II in the pacific first, (1941-1945). It is amazing to me that so many modern writers just do not seem to understand that in modern warfare a general is largely a chief of staff and that his main task is to organize; actual command is minimal. So McArthur is given credit for the island hoping campaign to isolate major Japanese garrisons and leave them to wither on a vine, so to speak. In actual fact this idea originated in Washington among military planners and McArthur had nothing to do with it. Further much of the planning of his campaigns was done in Washington and he merely carried out orders. Further his staff did most of the planning of operations with McArthur spending much of his time at photo-ops and propaganda leaving the actual conduct of operations largely to his staff. There was no one McArthur loved more than himself and he could be sure to take the credit regardless.8

As for his conduct of the Korean war. Well it all boils down to certain writers getting wet dreams because of the Inchon landing. What is ignored is that given American naval and air superiority a landing in the rear of the North Koreans was damn obvious. There was nothing brilliant about that. What was brilliant was the decision to land at Inchon, 1950. Why? Because the area was fairly lightly defended because it was a most unfavourable place to have a seaboard landing. Whether or not this was McArthur’s brainwave or some one’s else’s is not clear. Regardless Macarthur went with it a forced it through over considerable opposition. The result was spectacular success.9

Now it should be obvious that one example of brilliant general ship does not turn the general involved into a military genius. However McArthur supporters seem to forget that. Some even think he is a “Great Captain”.10 McArthur than proceeded to illustrate that truism by being thoroughly and completely out generaled, out fought and out thought. And who out thought him? Why the Chinese and their general Peng DeHuai.

McArthur’s behaviour before and during the Chinese intervention in the Korean War beggar’s belief. It is among the most extraordinary examples of self delusion and sheer incompetence of all time. Surrounded by yes men and living in a cloud cuckoo land of fantasy, McArthur ignored key intelligence, made incompetent dispositions and with almost unbelievable arrogance let stream from his lips in public a steady stream of absurdities and idiocies. McArthur spent more time preening himself for the press than in managing his armies.11

To make matters clear it should be realized just who McArthur was facing. The Chinese were just emerging from over a generation of civil war and foreign invasion. They had little stomach for foreign adventures. However McArthur’s very public statements about widening the war and invading Manchuria scared them. The Chinese armies were compared to the American forces severely lacking in motorized transport of any kind, lacking in tanks of any kind, lacking in anti-tank guns, heavy artillery, lots of ammunition, and lacking an air force of much use. The American led forces had all those things in abundance, giving them crushing fire power superiority, and this was combined with near total air supremacy. Although the Chinese had superior numbers, (contrary to myth making at the time it was not huge), that was much more than offset by the very large logistic and fire power superiority of the Americans. The result of any contest between the Chinese and the Americans should have been crushing victory for the Americans.12

It didn’t happen that way. The Chinese were very good at camouflage, and tried to move at night and further managed to have their supplies moved mostly by human and animal power. Further their skills at concealment, infiltration and surprise were excellent. They also had learned over the preceding 40 years how to find ways of dealing with enemies with superior logistics and firepower.13

Of course the Chinese’s greatest advantage was McArthur’s stubborn refusal to face facts or listen to intelligence and his belief that the Chinese would at most intervene with only a few divisions and that the Chinese military was hopelessly inferior to his own and would be easily crushed. Even in the face of a preliminary Chinese offensive in late October 1950 that set the Americans back and seriously shook up their forces, McArthur continued to live in cloud cuckoo land. Then McArthur renewed his “end the war” offensive in late November 1950 the Chinese attacked and despite the massive logistic and firepower superiority, to say nothing of the near total air supremacy of the Americans, managed to badly defeat the Americans and push them back into South Korea.14

Since McArthur’s career does not with the possible exception of the Inchon landing provide any support for the idea that he was “one of the Great Captains” of history, and that his defeat in North Korea is one of the most amazing defeats in modern history in terms of the mismatch between who won and who lost for which McArthur was largely responsible, and given that his victories in the Pacific during World War II were over a enemy he had a huge logistic and firepower superiority over and also that his actual responsibility for those achievements is debatable, he should NOT be considered a great military genius. What McArthur was a genius at was self publicity.

At another time I may do a posting about other overrated generals.

1. Dupuy, R. Ernest, & Dupuy, Trevor N., The Encyclopedia of Military History, Revised Edition, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1977, p. 522.

2. IBID, pp. 523-524, 526-530.

3. IBID, pp. 573-574, 537-539, see also Wilson, Peter H., Europe’s Tragedy, Penguin Books, London, 2009, pp. 459-511.

4. See Wilson, pp. 492-511.

5. IBID, pp. 501-506.

6. IBID, pp. 507-511.

7. Manchester, William, American Caesar, Dell, New York, 1983.

8. Spurr, Russell, Enter The Dragon, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1988, pp. 174-178, Toland, John, The Rising Sun, Bantam Books, New York, 1970, pp. 599-602.

9. Spurr, pp. 87-89.

10. Dupuy, p. 1204.

11. Spurr, pp. 158-163.

12. IBID, pp. 77-85, 116-119.

13. IBID, pp. 132-157.

14. Spurr, pp. 127-151, 172-218.

Pierre Cloutier

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