Alternate Strategies

Sun Sep 14 21:12:10 2008
Should historians discuss different strategies that may have altered the outcome of a conflict or situation as part of an historical analysis? Is “learning from our mistakes” part of the practice of history? Looking at the potential results or possible alternative strategies strikes me as having more impact on the discipline of strategy and military theory than it does on history. But then “learning from the past” has often been used as a primary justification for the study of history. Still, I think there are important historical reasons for looking at such an analysis.

The Vietnam War is often the first example that comes to mind. But that example tends to lead us directly into the “learn from our mistakes” perspective. Commentators often look at the Vietnam War as an example of failed policy and strategy, especially in the ongoing aftermath of the Iraq War. Comparisons are everywhere and it becomes a tacit part of our discourse whether we think they are appropriate or not.

Last week we commemorated the anniversary of September 11th. We remembered those who died in New York and Washington seven years ago. What we did not remember was our earlier September 11th, a disaster which almost brought and end to the American Republic. On September 11, 1777 Howe’s British troops met Washington’s army at Chadds Ford on the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania. The Battle of Brandywine was a decisive British victory which left the American capitol of Philadelphia undefended and soon occupied by the British. It nearly resulted in the complete destruction of the American army and the end of the rebellion.

It is easier to ask this question of the Battle of Brandywine than it is to ask it of the Vietnam War. We have forgotten Brandywine and no longer feel the sting of embarrassment or the pain of the possible alternatives. There are many strategies that would have altered the outcome of this battle. What if Washington had not left his right flank almost undefended? What if Howe had not taken so long to attack once he had the Americans outflanked? What if Howe would have aggressively pursued the retreating and disorganized American army? These are interesting questions, not because of their answers, but because of the other questions they lead us to. Looking at Washington’s right flank will help us to better understand the nature of 18th century warfare, logistics and intelligence. Thinking about Howe’s lack of “killer instinct” will lead us to look into the conflicted and ambivalent reactions to the colonial rebellion. These are important, not because they will lead us to change our strategy or military theory, but because it gives a deeper and more well-rounded picture of the social, cultural, technological and human factors that were in play at Brandywine. I think this is the same reason that we should look carefully at the different strategies that may have altered the Vietnam War. The results of that investigation should provide us far more than just lessons in strategy or theory.

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~ by severalfourmany on September 14, 2008.

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