Military Might, Out of the Wilderness - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Military Might, Out of the Wilderness

Permit me, please, some only partially organized reflections, spurred by what is now a fifth straight day of being moved to think about the realities and vagaries of war. War is a horrible thing.

The problem is where to begin. I write this column on Monday, almost 149 years not just to the day but to the very minute (noonish, May 6) from a signal event in the history of the United States and perhaps the world. That’s an odd number; commemorations usually come in nice round increments like 10, 25, 100, or 150. In this case, though, thoughts of the 149th anniversary grew from a discussion of the 150th anniversary of another, similar, almost equally important event.

Wow: that’s already quite a jumble. Let’s go back and start chronologically with my week, not with the event to be commemorated.

This all started with an event in New Orleans sponsored by the Pelican Institute, at which I was one of the four panelists. Toward the end of the wide-ranging discussion about how Republicans can get their mo-jo back, an audience member asked if his impression was true that there is a developing split, especially generationally, between conservatives who tend to approve of international interventionism militarily and those who are far more loath to support the use of military force.

My answer was that yes, there does seem to be such a split–and that the split isn’t merely about whether to use our armed forces, but about the very size and scope of those forces themselves. I said that more and more conservatives these days, especially younger ones, see no need for anywhere near as strong a deterrent as the United States has maintained for the past 60 years (since Korea).

“I have no problem with differing opinions on how and when to use force,” I said. “Those are debatable, practical judgments. But I’m here to tell you that anybody who thinks we can afford a much smaller overall military is just plain wrong.” Not just wrong, but foolish. Against the ravages of international jihad, not to mention continuing state power from problematic nation-states, the U.S. military still needs the ability to project power rapidly and with overwhelming effectiveness. I particularly noted, and lamented, how thinly stretched the Navy is, with 282 ships today compared to 571 under Ronald Reagan.

The next day my friend and fellow panelist Deroy Murdock, the actual originator of the most productively discussed subject at the forum (namely, minority outreach), told me that he thought my discussion of the military issues were particularly important. “We can’t afford to get those issues wrong,” he said.

It so happened that for the next two days after that conversation with Murdock, I was fortunate enough to play host for a visit (to Mobile, AL) by another old friend from my Georgetown University days, a guy who truly is an expert on the process of arming and equipping military forces. Bill Latham is director of the Operational Contract Support Course at the United States Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, Virginia. Before that he served 22 years in the Army, first as an aviator (he flew helicopters in Operation Desert Storm) and then as an instructor at West Point before, as a civilian, teaching logistics first at Fort Leavenworth and now at Fort Lee. So, in the midst of reliving past glories (a Hoya national basketball championship among them), Bill and I had plenty of discussions about the importance of ensuring that we “get it right” on armaments and troop support.

One reason Bill was in town was to visit, for the first time, the USS Alabama battleship that is a permanent, floating museum in Mobile Bay. Have you ever been on a battleship? There’s just no way to understand the size and scope of those vessels, not even staring on land looking right at it, until you climb on board. The level after level after level of the thing! The sparseness of the living quarters, with enlisted men sleeping in stacks of four (!) on row after row after row of hanging bed mats. The sheer logistical feat required to supply those hundreds and hundreds of men, in open sea, in wartime, with fresh rations! And the unfathomable power of guns being able to fire 2,700-pound missiles at the speed of a rifle bullet, to a range of up to 20 miles–all while using 1940s technology, without computers or modern metallurgy, with most of these ships being built far more quickly (and certainly in greater numbers) than comparable ships are today.

The scope of the engineering and logistics for each of these vessels absolutely boggles the mind.

What also boggles the mind is just how tough the living conditions are for men in uniform. The close quarters, the lack of privacy, the dearth of creature comforts, and of course the constant danger to limb and life, all are stark realities for sailors and soldiers. This is especially true, of course, during time of war–which is another reason we should never put these men at such risk except for overwhelmingly good reason and moral purpose.

And if the dangers of battle are severe, the horrors of captivity at the hands of America’s enemies are often worse. Geneva Conventions or no Geneva Conventions, those enemies have more often than not been prone to deliberate infliction of the worst sorts of abuses imaginable. Most people are of course familiar with the viciousness and torture endured, for instance, at the “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam, especially as recounted in Admiral Jeremiah Denton’s superb When Hell Was in Session. Most Americans are at least vaguely aware of the horrors doled out by the Japanese during World War II. But few are familiar with the comparable suffering, at the hands of North Korean and Chinese captors, of allied prisoners during the Korean War.

As it so happens, my friend Bill Latham just had published in March a book ten years in the making, about just that subject. As had been the case for Admiral Denton, Hades again rightly provided the title reference: Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea. (Bill’s book merits, and will receive at another time from me, a full-length review.) The Communist jailers were guilty of just about any and every brutality imaginable, with prisoner death rates often astonishingly high.

The most vivid prisoner portrait in Cold Days in Hell is that of a Catholic priest, Father Emily Kapaun. Weaponless, Kapaun regularly confronted enemy soldiers and officers to save his own compatriots from neglect, starvation, beatings, and even execution, all while he himself suffered without complaint a series of maladies that would eventually take his life. (Bill wrote a separate piece on Father Kapaun for Army magazine, well worth a read.) Largely as a result of Bill Latham’s work (as recounted by the Associated Press), some six decades after the fact, Father Kapaun last month was awarded the Medal of Honor–and now is even under consideration for sainthood.

As Bill described it, Kapaun’s last recorded words came as his Chinese captors carried him off to certain death: “Clutching his purple stole and his ciborium, Kapaun smiled and waved goodbye. He begged his friend, Mike Dowe, not to take it so hard: ‘I’m going where I’ve always wanted to go, and when I get up there, I’ll say a prayer for all of you.’”

Death awaits us all, of course, but sometimes individual deaths change the course of history. While driving around with Bill Latham over the weekend, somehow the conversation meandered to a point where Bill, out of the blue, noted that it had been almost 150 years to the very day since the U.S. Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville, at once perhaps the most astonishing victory and yet the site of one of the most grievous losses for Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

“To the day?” I asked, having forgotten the calendar. “Then it must also be about 150 years-minus-one to the day of when Lee again won at Wilderness — and again lost his best remaining general.”

We were referring, of course, to the death of Stonewall Jackson, who fell to complications from injury-by-friendly fire at Chancellorsville; and to the incapacitating injury to James Longstreet, in the midst of a very similar maneuver to Jackson’s, also from mistaken friendly fire, just four miles from where Jackson had fallen, at the battle of The Wilderness one year later.

Jackson’s mortal wounding –on May 2, which was 150 years and three days before my conversation with Bill–removed from Lee’s army a surpassingly skillful fighter, a master of mass maneuver and well-timed assault. Many have theorized, over the years, that had Jackson been around two months later at Gettysburg, the outcome would have been entirely different, with the Union army rather than the Confederates routed from the field of battle.

But that’s pure speculation. It’s putting somebody where he never was, arguing a series of “what-ifs,” for the likelihood of a radically different result. As is all such pure speculation, it is highly debatable.

On the other hand, the immediate effect of the serious injury to Longstreet was plain for all to see. When confused Virginians wounded Longstreet, it was just mid-day, right in the midst of a hugely successful attack brilliantly planned and executed by the general. Union general Winfield Scott Hancock years later told Longstreet (who survived his wounds and lived another 40 years) that the Confederate had “rolled me up like a wet blanket,” annihilating his army’s flank and leaving the whole of Ulysses S. Grant’s Army at risk of major defeat.

But with Longstreet fallen to what at first seemed likely to be a mortal wound, the initiative was lost, morale undermined, and mass confusion created. “Four mortal hours,” wrote historian Shelby Foote, “from noon to 4 o’clock, were required to get the troops untangled and into satisfactory positions for attack, and when they went forward at 4:15 they found that Hancock, too, had made good use of the time afforded for adjustments.”

Result: While the Northern army eventually was forced from the battlefield, the utter union rout was averted. Yankee General Grant, badly beaten as he was at The Wilderness (17,666 casualties to only 7,800 for Lee), was nonetheless not so ignominiously crushed as to be obligated to retreat towards Washington, D.C. in utter disrepair. Instead, still enjoying superior overall numbers and a functioning operational chain of command, Grant was able to order a flanking march and resume his slow push toward Richmond.

This was in an election year. A union army in retreat, rather than the offensive, surely would have spelled doom for Abraham Lincoln’s re-election chances. And a President McClellan, rather than a President Lincoln, would surely have sued for peace, with the United States broken into two separate nations.

Thus it is that the confused shot that felled Longstreet for the rest of the Wilderness battle and the ensuing five months was, even more than the confused shot that felled and effectively killed Stonewall Jackson, a shot that much more definitively changed the outcome of the war–and salvaged the united status of the one country whose might and goodness made it the “indispensable nation” of the succeeding century.

All of the logistics, all of the engineering, all of the strategy, all of the courage, and all of the blood of a major war can go for nought, or instead be made part of victory, by the vagaries of one random, mistaken pull of a trigger.

Warfare, though, is not always so random. The reason Grant was able to keep marching to Richmond was that he had superior numbers. The reason Longstreet’s brilliance (and Jackson’s brilliance the year before) was so essential to overcoming long odds is that the odds were indeed so long. A larger Confederate force against a smaller Union army would not have been so reliant on the battlefield leadership of one lieutenant general. Force strength–what Lincoln called “the arithmetic” of warfare–usually matters even more than either genius or luck.

As Father Kapaun proved and as Bill Latham memorialized, heroism endures and, in doing so, inspires. But as Latham’s work teaching logistics almost certainly indicates, and as the great floating iron beasts of World War II demonstrated, heroism alone is seldom enough for victory unless numbers, organization, and ordinance are skillfully brought to bear.

From Goldwater through Reagan and then through Dick Cheney, conservatives always have understood the best deterrence to war, or to wider war, is the possession of overwhelming might, organized efficiently. Whether one thinks our eviction of Saddam Hussein was wise or not, and whether or not one would project force in this world trouble spot or that one, it remains essential that an honorable nation indeed have ample force to project.

Might doesn’t necessarily make right, but right usually needs might in order to prevail.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army 

Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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