Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Fog of War Part I: War is Cruelty

I was watching the history channel this evening and caught a documentary by Ed Morris who interviewed Robert MacNamara regarding his life and his service to country. Bascially, he put it together in a "lessons learned" package. I'm not sure I caught all of the "lessons", but it was interesting to listen to him discuss history, including WW2 through Vietnam. I thought the most telling parts of the documentary were the contradictions, not just within MacNamara, but within the concepts of war and history.

Of course, the presenters who were discussing it as part of "Movies in History", were discussing it in relationship to Iraq. They pointed out that MacNamara had made statements after the war turned into an insurgency which purported to indicate the military and administration was making the same mistakes that were made back then. Before I go off on that subject, I really wanted to explore a few things that he said about World War 2 and lessons learned because they were echoing some of my thoughts on the subject, particularly those I expressed in replying to Mr. Daniel Ellsberg's piece about the Vietnam/Iraq Paradigm.

One of the things that MacNamara said in regards to Vietnam that I think applies at every aspect of life is that, sometimes, what you believe and what you see can be totally wrong. I think that, whether you come from the right or the left on the current war, that kind of problem can be seen all over the place. That includes those that believe Iraq is Vietnam or those that believe the entire Islamic Ummah is just waiting to rise up and kill everyone. While I have been accused of believing the latter and being a "warmongerer" (that is what they called MacNamara), it is simply untrue. But, in the politics of war, people go to the extremes in what way or the other because it is war and it does inflame the passions and, it is easier to pretend to know one way or the other than to admit you don't know and to keep searching for the answers where even then you may never come up with something that satisfies the question.

But, I digress.

Statistics and "Just War"

MacNamara discussed two areas of pre-Vietnam warfare that I wanted to address: "just war" (what is it and does the definition depend on who wins?) and statistics in military actions. He also discussed the use of statistics in military operations and how they can inform and direct the planning and execution of missions and over all operations.

For instance, he talked about a study during World War II regarding B-29 bombing runs over Germany. In this review of operations, his group noted that 20% of all bombers that took off aborted before reaching the target area. Upon reviewing the reasons given in the reports, MacNamara's team gave a report that said the reasons given were "baloney" and amounted to fear because every bomber crew that took off knew the statistics, too. Those statistics indicated that 25% of these bombers would be shot out of the sky.

MacNamara said, when Curtis LeMay read the report, he was shocked and angry. He knew that in order to bring Germany to it's knees quicker and end the war sooner, they had to take out every ability to manufacture weapons and ammunition, clothes, vehicles, food, etc. In short, destroy the ability to make war. This meant more bombs on target. LeMay sent out an order indicating that he would be in the lead bomber during missions (lead from the front) and any bomber that turned back before completing the mission would have its crew court martialed for cowardice and desertion of post (among other things that could be punishable by death during war). According to MacNamara, this had the effect of greatly reducing the number of aborted flights.

MacNamara then discussed the Japanese front. He discussed an operation that was meant to put B-29 bombers over Japan. They would fly the bombers to India where they would pick up fuel and ammunition, fly them to an air strip in China for deposit, then return trip and repeat until they had enough fuel and ammunition built up to fly massive bomber runs over Japan. The problem was, that the bombers would often need to use the fuel they had just cargoed into China to make the return trip to India in order to pick up more fuel and supplies to cart to China. In short, they would never be able to make the runs because it was inefficient use of equipment, men, logistic supply lines, and time. He said Curtis LeMay had the operations base moved to Marianas Islands where they were able to station and run thousands of sorties over Japan.

Next he discussed the actual bombing raids. Curtis LeMay felt that the bombing runs were not efficient. The first raids indicated less than 10% of all bombs reached their targets. The B-29 had been built to deliver bombs from 25,000 ft, well above the flack and other anti-aircraft weapons of the time, but it did not prove accurate with unguided bombs. Those statistics and continuing weather conditions around Japan caused LeMay to look for a different way to run those raids so the bombers were told to fly in around 5,000 to 9,000 ft to deliver their payloads. This increased accuracy considerably, but also increased the number of casualties.

MacNamara spoke about a post mission briefing where many pilots and other general officers expressed their displeasure at the order to fly in so low when they knew their machines were expressly built to fly higher and avoid casualties. One pilot stood up and demanded to know "who the SOB was that gave those orders" because it resulted in the loss of his wingman. MacNamara relates that LeMay stood up and said it was his orders, he was responsible for that loss and for every man who died under his command (MacNamara indicated LeMay's speech was a little more emotional, but so was MacNamara when he spoke because I believe he sees himself in LeMay's place, ordering great numbers of men to carry out the national will resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and to what outcome). However, LeMay also told the man that, while he regrets that loss, the mission resulted in 60% destruction of Tokyo and many military capabilities targets that would eventually lead to the end of war, saving many more lives.

Fortunately, LeMay turned out to be correct that the war would soon be over after such massive bombings. MacNamara commented on the question of whether, after fire bombing Japans largest cities and killing or wounding over a million and making homeless millions more, having greatly reduced Japans ability to make war, was it necessary to drop the Atomic Bombs. Basically, his answer was that Japan was still fighting. Iwo Jima and Okinawa proved that the war was going to continue to cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of lives as well as much money and resources. He believed it was correct to bring the war to a quick end if possible.

He later comments, however, that LeMay made a statement, after reviewing the devestation of fire bombing and destruction up to 90% in some cities, that, had they lost the war, he was sure they would all have been prosecuted as war criminals because of the deliberate targeting of civilians and the number of civilian dead. MacNamara said the lesson was, "Sometimes to do good, men must do evil". In other words, to end the wars with Germany and Japan quickly, stop the destruction and death running across the lands, LeMay determined that he would do what ethics and the original Geneva Conventions prohibited: deliberately target civilians. Worse, burn them up with incendiary bombs that he knew would start raging infernos, particularly in Japanese cities that were largely made of wooden structures. He knew it would kill men, women and children and that it did not exactly equate with his original concepts of war, but he was willing to take on that risk and responsibility, the responsibility of ordering the death of hundreds of thousands, not just his own men, but the enemy.

MacNamara indicated that, contrary to popular belief, it was not a simple decision made only at the top of the command chain (ie, president and war department) but that there was great discussions throughout the chain of command about the ethics of such a tactic. LeMay made the command decision and is purported to quote Sherman:

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it

1 comment:

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