Monday, February 07, 2005

Re: A Response to Your Reply of January 21

----- Original Message -----

From: "Damato, Anthony A"
To: "Dean Lawrence R. Velvel"
Sent: Friday, February 04, 2005 7:17 PM
Subject: A Reponse to Your Reply of January 21

I like your civil war example. When I talk about "strategic choices" made in history, it is close to the "counterfactual history" that you mention, but maybe not exactly the same. Counterfactual history answers the question "what would have happened if they had taken the Y road instead of the X road?" Strategic history answers the question: "why did the decision-makers at the time choose the X road, and what facts and projections about the Y road did they negligently fail to take into account?"

On the strategic view, your question was whether Lincoln was right in wanting a chewing-up campaign. Let us look at the parameters. On Lincoln's side is the fact that the North had many more men of fighting age than the South, and hence in a one-for-one campaign of attrition the North clearly would win. Moreover, a one-for-one attrition could mean fewer casualties in the long run because of the shortening of the war period. What mistake did Lincoln make? I suspect that he overlooked the fact that the Southern armies were much better trained and battle-equipped man-for-man than the Northern armies.

The early battles may have taught the Northern generals this very lesson: that the North loses 2 or 3 of its best soldiers for every 1 the South loses. (One would have to exclude support personnel, engineers, etc., which may be more evenly divided in any given battle. Field generals would intuit this figure, but political leaders might not.) If this is true, then Lincoln's recipe would have lost the war for the North. Now I, knowing little about the Civil War (but anxious to learn!), would have to say that a historian would have to painfully assess the realities of the situation as it appeared to Lincoln and his generals early in the war. What can some historical assessment show us? What were the merits as they appeared in 1862 about Lincoln's generals' strategy of retreat rather than continuous fighting? On the view of the generals, the industrial capacity of the North, which far overwhelmed the South in terms of producing guns and munitions and wagons, would over time prevail. Thus in 1862, no matter how bad the military prospects may have appeared, in two or three years the North would win the war on account of its productive strength. Thus, from the generals' calculation, winning the war was a "sure thing" if we prolong it for a few years. Again from their viewpoint, Lincoln was too much of a gambler: he wanted a quicker victory by continuous fighting, but by pitting Northern soldiers against the
better-trained Southern soldiers, he also risked a quick defeat in the entire war.

These speculations bring to mind those of Admiral Yamamoto who devised the plan to attack Pearl Harbor. In presenting his plan to the Japanese war councils, he said that he was putting it forward as strictly conditioned on peace terms being put offered to the Americans no later than
six months after the Pearl Harbor attack (if it was successful). He told his colleagues that he had been to the United States, had seen its vast, slumbering industrial capacity, and he concluded that there was absolutely no way Japan could win a war against the United States that extended for more than a year.

His strategic vision was exactly right. If Japan had knocked off Pearl Harbor under Yamamoto's plan and sued for peace six months later, the prospect of peace in the Pacific might been attractive to Roosevelt who was worried about stopping Hitler in Europe. Sure FDR's peace terms against Japan would have been onerous (Yamamoto may have underestimated this point), but at least the terms would be a lot better than those offered to Japan in the fall of 1941 before the Pearl Harbor attack. Of course, as we know, irrationality set in. The Japanese military was so intoxicated by their victory at Pearl Harbor that they convinced themselves that they would win the entire war, and forgot about the "slumbering giant" in the Western Hemisphere. Yet it was ultimately America's 10-to-1 ratio over Japan in industrialization that won the war (even leaving the atomic bomb out of it).

I realize that these parallels are not exact, but I offer them in the spirit of your astute comment that a historical counterfactual is not much good unless it is supported by some other analogous historical incident that evidences its validity.

Tony D'Amato

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