The five greatest disasters in American military history
Nations often linger on their military defeats for as long or longer than they do on their successes. The Battle for Kosovo remains the key event in Serbian history, and devastating military defeats adorn the national narratives of France, Russia and the southern United States. What are the greatest disasters in American military history and what effect have they had on the United States?
In this article, I focus on specific operational and strategic decisions, leaving aside the broader and strategic judgments that may have led the United States into reckless conflicts. The United States may have made a political error in engaging in the War of 1812, WWI, the Vietnam War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but here I consider how specific failures made the position worse. America’s military and strategic.
Invasion of Canada
At the start of the War of 1812, American forces invaded Upper and Lower Canada. Americans expected a relatively easy life; the idea that Canada represented the soft underbelly of the British Empire had been popular among American statesmen for some time. Civilian and military leaders expected a swift surrender, forced in part by the support of the local population. But the Americans overestimated their support among Canadians, overestimated their military capabilities, and underestimated British might. Instead of an easy victory, the British inflicted a devastating defeat on the Americans.
The American forces (made up largely of recently mobilized militias) prepare to invade Canada on three axes in advance, but do not attack simultaneously and cannot support each other. The American forces lacked the experience to fight against a professional army and lacked good logistics. This limited their ability to concentrate their forces against British weak points. The Americans also lacked a good back-up plan for the setbacks the British soon handed them over. None of the American commanders (led by War of Independence veteran William Hull) showed enthusiasm for the fight, or willingness to take the risks necessary to gain advantages.
The real disaster of the campaign became evident in Detroit in August, when a combined British and Native American army forced Hull to surrender, despite a larger number. The British continued their victory by seizing and burning several American border outposts, although they lacked the numbers and the logistical tail to probe American territory very deeply. The other two strands of the invasion failed to march well beyond their starting points. American forces achieved several notable successes later in the war, reestablishing their position along the border, but never effectively threatened British Canada.
The failure of the invasion turned what the Americans had envisioned as an easy and lucrative offensive war into a defensive struggle. This was a major setback to the vision, dear to Americans, of a North America completely under US domination. Britain would retain its position on the continent, eventually securing Canadian independence from Washington.
Battle of Antietam
In September 1862, Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s objectives were to take advantage of foraging opportunities (the movement of armies across Virginia had devastated the land), to support a revolt in Maryland, and to potentially inflict serious defeat on Union forces. Unfortunately for Lee, information about his readiness to fight fell into the hands of General George McClellan, who moved to intercept with the Potomac’s much larger army. President Lincoln saw this as an opportunity to destroy or abuse Lee’s army.
The battle of Antetam claimed 22,000 lives, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the Americas. Despite a massive number, a good working knowledge of Lee’s dispositions, and a positional advantage, McClellan failed to inflict a serious defeat on the Confederates. Lee was able to withdraw in good order, sustaining higher proportional losses, but maintaining the integrity of his force and his ability to withdraw safely into Confederate territory.
McClellan probably couldn’t have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam (19th century armies were devilishly difficult to annihilate, given the technology available), but he could have dealt it a much more serious setback. He vastly overestimated the size of Lee’s force, moved slowly to take advantage of clear opportunities, and maintained poor communications with his sub-commanders. Greater success at Antietam might have saved the Army of the Potomac from the devastation of Fredericksburg, where Union forces launched an unnecessary direct assault on the prepared Confederate positions.
Antietam was not a complete failure; the Northern Virginia army was injured and McClellan forced Lee out of Maryland. President Lincoln felt confident enough after the battle to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free slaves in rebel states. Nonetheless, Antietam represented the best opportunity the Union would have to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, which remained one of the Confederacy’s centers of gravity until 1865.
On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Germany’s treaty obligations to Japan required no action in the event of a Japanese attack, but Germany nonetheless decided to formalize the informal war it was waging with the United States in the Atlantic. Historically, this has been considered one of Hitler’s major blunders. At the time, however, this gave German submariners their first opportunity to feast on American coastal shipping.
During the first six months of 1942, the submarine force commanded by Admiral Doenitz deployed to the coastline of the east coast. The Germans had observed a certain restraint before Pearl Harbor in order to avoid outright American intervention. It ended with the Japanese attack. German submarines were extremely successful because none of the US Army Air Force, Navy, or US Civil Defense authorities were well prepared for submarine defense. Coastal towns remained illuminated, making it easy for submarine commanders to choose targets. Fearing the lack of escorts (as well as the irritation of the American business community), the US Navy (USN) refused to organize cabotage in convoys. The USN and the US Army Air Force, having fought bitterly for years, had not prepared the necessary cooperative procedures to fight the submarines.
The results have been devastating. Allied maritime losses doubled from the previous year and remained high throughout 1942. German successes deeply concerned the British, so they quickly sent advisers to the United States to help develop a concerted anti-submarine doctrine. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was (and is) immensely complicated, requiring a lot of coordination and experience to be successful. The United States had neither worked diligently on the problem before the war, nor had it taken the time to learn from the British. However, the USN would correct its mistake later in the war, becoming a very effective ASW force and deploying its own submarines against the Japanese.
Through the score, 1950
After the successful defense of Pusan and the resounding victory at Inchon Beaches, the United States Army and Marine Corps, with the support of ROK forces, went deep into Korea. North with the aim of destroying the Pyongyang regime and returning full control of the Korean Peninsula to Seoul. The United States saw a counteroffensive as an opportunity to roll back Communist gains in the wake of the Chinese revolution and to punish the Communist world for aggression on the Korean Peninsula.
It was an operational and strategic disaster. As US forces approached the Chinese border on two widely divergent (and mutually intolerable) axes, Chinese forces massed in the mountains of North Korea. Beijing’s diplomatic warnings grew louder and louder, but just after Inchon’s victory, little in the United States paid heed. China was impoverished and militarily weak, while the Soviet Union had shown no taste for direct intervention.
When the Chinese counterattacked in November 1950, they pushed back the forces of the US Army and the Marine Corps with enormous loss of life on both sides. For a while, it appeared that the People’s Liberation Army counteroffensive could completely rout the United Nations forces. Eventually, however, the lines stabilized around what is now the DMZ.
This failure had many fathers. While General Douglas MacArthur most aggressively pushed for a decisive offensive, he had many friends and supporters in Congress. President Truman made no effort to restrain MacArthur until the scale of the disaster became apparent. The US intelligence services did not have a good understanding of Chinese objectives or Chinese capabilities. The invasion resulted in two more years of war, in which neither China nor the United States could move each other very far from the 38th parallel. It also poisoned US-China relations for a generation.
Dismantle the Iraqi army
On May 23, 2003, Paul Bremer (chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority) ordered the Iraqi army to disband. It’s hard to overstate the recklessness of this decision. We don’t need to step back; it was, as many admitted, a terrible decision at the time. In an instant, all of Iraqi military history was swept away, including the traditions and community spirit of the best Iraqi military formations. Eradication was the best way to deal with the sectors of Iraqi society most likely to engage in insurgent activity.