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In Nearly All of Our Wars We've Made Serious Mistakes

The current cacophony over President Bush's supposed miscalculation about the difficulty of pacifying Iraq is badly in need of some historical perspective. The commentators and candidates can't seem to recall any war before Vietnam. If we look a little farther back -- and even a lot farther back -- we will find that many American leaders, including the founding fathers, went to war on assumptions that soon proved painfully wrong.

In 1776, the Americans revolted against Great Britain with Thomas Paine's assurance in Common Sense that the British fleet was a decaying barnacled wreck and the mother country's economy on the brink of bankruptcy. Four years later, a relentless British naval blockade had shrunk the American economy to the vanishing point, the British were financing fleets and armies in America, the West Indies and India and American currency was not worth "a continental." They also committed themselves to a ruinous military strategy: the expectation that the war would be won or lost in a "general action" -- one big battle, in which they thought their superior numbers would prevail. In the first major battle, on Brooklyn Heights, the British army outnumbered the Americans and thrashed them unmercifully. A few weeks later, George Washington reversed the strategy of the war; he told Congress he would "never seek a general action." Instead he would "protract the war." This was the formula for success -- but it took seven agonizing years.

In the War of 1812, "War Hawks" in Congress, with the covert support of President James Madison, called for war to revenge British depredations against American ships. The hawks' game plan called for an easy conquest of Canada while the British were fighting for survival against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Alas, untrained American militia proved no match for the small British professional army in Canada and when the British defeated Napoleon, they shipped a formidable army and fleet to Louisiana, intending to seize New Orleans and take control of the Mississippi River. Only the frantic recruitment of frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee enabled General Andrew Jackson to defeat them and save the United States from dismemberment.

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In the war with Mexico, President James Polk thought a sound thrashing of the Mexican Army along the Rio Grande and in northern Mexico would produce a peace treaty and guarantees that Texas and what is now New Mexico, Arizona and California would become American territory. Instead, the Mexicans refused to surrender in spite of a series of defeats and Polk was forced to "conquer a peace" by landing an army in Vera Cruz with orders to march to Mexico City. A great many experts, including the Duke of Wellington, predicted the Americans would be annihilated but General Winfield Scott won a series of smashing victories, with the help of a swarm of talented graduates of West Point, led by Captain Robert E. Lee. Scott finally occupied the Mexican capital and obtained the elusive peace treaty.

At the start of the Civil War, the abolitionists in the Republican Party forbade President Abraham Lincoln from negotiating any compromise with the southern secessionists. The abolitionists assured Lincoln, whose military experience was close to zero, that the effete slave owners could never withstand an assault by the free men of the North. Lincoln summoned 75,000 volunteers to serve 90 days -- an indication of how totally he swallowed this nonsense. On the day of the Battle of Bull Run, many Republican members of Congress rode out with the Union Army to watch them chase the slavocrats over the horizon and march on to the Confederate capital, Richmond. At the end of the day, these no longer confident politicians became part of the fleeing mob into which the Union Army disintegrated in their mad rush to escape Southern bullets and bayonets. It dawned on Lincoln that he was involved in a war for national survival. By the time the shooting ended, over a million Americans were dead -- the equivalent of six million dead in our current population.

Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter World War I is perhaps the most egregious example of presidential miscalculation. Wilson, brainwashed by British and French propaganda (as were most members of Congress and the nation's leading newspapers) assumed there was no need to send any soldiers to France. He thought American participation in the war would be naval and financial. The chief of staff of the U.S. Army put a memorandum in his files to this effect, a month after Congress declared war. A few days later, British and French military missions arrived in Washington. "We want men, men, men!" one French general said. They revealed for the first time the Germans were close to winning the war. The French army had mutinied and only two divisions were reliable. The British were almost as demoralized by their massive casualties in the battle of the Somme. By the time the war ended, there were two million American soldiers in France. In five months of ferocious fighting, they won victory at the cost of 50,300 dead and 198,000 wounded.

America's entry into World War II began with a grievous miscalculation by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Desperate to get the United States into the war before Hitler's armies conquered Russia and turned on an isolated England, FDR decided a "back door" approach was his only option, since the Germans declined to give him an incident that would justify a declaration of war. He would lure Japan into an attack by cutting off their oil supplies, and use it as a pretext to declare war on both Germany and Japan, who had a treaty of alliance. The calculation was based on the racist assumption that the Japanese were inept pilots and mediocre sailors, because their eyesight was bad and they were not terribly bright. They could be contained by a modest defensive force of American ships and planes, letting us throw most of our military might into the European war. Pearl Harbor and the clockwork air and sea assault on the Philippines exploded this assumption. Tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors died in the Japanese trans-Pacific rampage. Only hairbreadth victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway rescued Australia and Hawaii from Japanese occupation. An anecdote sums up this dolorous tale. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox visited FDR in the White House on the afternoon of Pearl Harbor. Knox later recalled, "He was white as a sheet. He expected to get hit but not hurt."

The Korean War began -- or was triggered -- by a miscalculation on the part of President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Trying to defuse tensions in the Far East, so our forces in Europe could be bolstered against the looming threat of a Russian invasion, Truman permitted Acheson to announce South Korea was not within the American sphere of interest. This gave Josef Stalin and his North Korean puppets the green light for a stunning assault on the embryo republic, leaving Americans flatfooted. But Truman responded with grim tenacity, rallying the free world to join him in the effort. One of the bitterest wars America has ever fought ended with the North Koreans and their Chinese allies driven out of South Korea.

Maybe Harry Truman put it best when he replied to the hindsight critics of the Korean War, who grew plentiful as it dragged on: "Any six year old's hindsight is worth a president's foresight." The real test is how a president performs after the illusions of war are replaced by hard realities.