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First Battles in Retrospect by John Shy

Excerpted with permission from the concluding chapter of America's First Battles, 1776-1965, edited by Charles E. Heller and William A. Stofft, c 1986 by the University Press of Kansas, all rights reserved.
A two-part idea has inspired this book: that first battles are peculiar, significantly unlike subsequent military operations of a war, and that the peculiarity is obscured by historical perspective, by our knowledge of what happened during and after the first battle. Each part of the idea requires close attention.

The peculiarity of first battles lies mainly in the lack of recent, relevant combat experience by the forces engaged. Sometimes, as in the 1942 North African campaign, only one side lacks this experience. But more often both sides will bring to the first battle preparations, expectations, and predictions largely untempered by direct knowledge-personal or organizational-of what actually happens in the violent shock of armed combat. Few would question the importance of this kind of experience to an armed force; yet it is precisely this kind of experience that the sporadic nature of war denies to an armed force in its first battle. Often only a few senior leaders will have had combat experience; sometimes no one will have had it. Weapons, doctrine, and organization inevitably will have changed since the last war, sometimes radically so, more often slightly but significantly. And invariably the precise circumstances of the new war are unique, however familiar the enemy or the terrain may be. Nothing comes through more strongly in the preceding case studies than the importance of these circumstances (which may be translated to mean "politics" in Clausewitz's broad sense of the word) to understanding the what and why of first battles. Political circumstances appear to have two major effects on first battles: limiting the military possibilities to certain resources and locations, and pushing strategy in certain directions at certain times. Of course, the enemy has a good deal to say about strategy, but an attentive reader will have been impressed by how often political circumstances at the beginning of a war, from the American Revolution to Vietnam, will affect the target and timing of strategy leading to the first battle. Subsequently, the military situation-the results of the first battle-plays a crucial role in strategy. But in the beginning, it is whatever causes the war-the politics of its outbreak, well beyond the control and responsibility of military commanders-that gives to the first battle much of its peculiar quality.

This peculiar quality of the first battle will usually vanish or be transformed once the battle is over. This vanishing trick is the second part of the idea that deserves special study. Once the results of the first battle are known, the events of the battle and what led up to it are seen in a new perspective; if the military outcome was decisive, the blunders of the defeated and the brilliance of the victor shape postbattle inquiry, while a stalemate-as in 1914-draws attention to the misguided optimism and mistaken predictions of both sides, perhaps to lost opportunities as well. In any case, the actual experience of the first battle-the perceptions, problems, calculations, decisions, and actions-is distorted by knowledge of the outcome. The normal human emotions of complacency and regret, euphoria and depression, are homely reminders of our natural tendency to read history backward, to look for the present in the past, neglecting all that for the moment does not seem relevant. But reading history backward destroys the integrity of the past. How many of us have tried in vain to explain to someone who was not present at an event that what happened cannot be understood solely in terms of the result, that the situation was complicated, that the actors were confused, that time was short? It is the same with first battles, only with far greater intensity and consequence. The results of the first battle so often structure the remainder of a war that observers simply cannot achieve the detachment and empathy needed to restore to the first battle its historical integrity. After two decades dust has not quite settled on the La Drang Valley, but at least now we can begin to add Vietnam to our list of cases in order to learn whatever first battles may have to teach us.

Both the peculiar quality of first battles and the difficulty caused by historical perspective in recapturing that quality are direct results of the roles ignorance and uncertainty play in first battles. All wars involve high levels of ignorance and uncertainly; if they did not, surprise, intelligence, and security would be far less important in warfare than they are. But it is at the very beginning of a war when lack of knowledge or of confidence may dominate the situation, before commanders can assess the results of their first realistic test of estimates, assumptions, guesses, predictions, hopes, and fears. It is this ignorance and uncertainty, lying at the heart of first-battle reality that the authors of these case studies have tried to recapture as fully and accurately as possible. Each chapter has focused on the preconceptions and preparations, immediate problems, and the sequence of actions in the first battle. Each author has added his own assessment of the battle's impact. Here, in the final chapter, the task is to do what any attentive, interested reader ought to do: analyze, compare, and reflect on this peculiar kind of military experience. What follows is not in any sense meant to be definitive; rather, it is offered as a set of carefully considered thoughts, based squarely on the ten case studies, about the phenomenon of the first battle.

Of the ten first battles, the U.S. Army suffered five defeats (Long Island, Queenston, Bull Run, Kasserine, and Osan/Naktong) and won five victories. Four of those victories were very costly (San Juan, Cantigny, Buna, Ia Drang)-some might say too costly for the gains achieved. Only the two-day battle of the Rio Grande in 1846 was relatively cheap, although even their losses approached 10 percent of the force engaged. Won or lost, the first battle almost guarantees that inexperience will be paid for in blood. How far this costly inexperience would have been remediable by more and better training is an important and difficult question which will be discussed later. But here it can be said with some confidence that in only a few instances did inadequately prepared troops seem to fall apart before undergoing severe combat stress; most troops at Queenston in 1812 (certainly), some units at Kasserine in 1943 and from Osan to the Naktong in 1950 (probably), simply could not or would not fight effectively. But a close look at Long Island in 1776, Bull Run in 1861, Volunteer units 1n Cuba in 1898, National Guardsmen at Buna in 1942 and at Kasserine in 1943, and most occupation troops rushed to Korea in 1950 shows soldiers fighting perhaps better than might be expected, giving way only under heavy enemy pressure, and learning quickly under fire what they had not been taught before the first battle.


A fourth recurrent feature of these first battles, along with command-and-control problems, the role of doctrine, and the pervasiveness of political factors, concerns what may be called "preparedness." How ready was the Army to fight, relative to its enemy? Of course, both doctrine and command-and-control may be regarded as aspects of preparedness, but the critical importance-and prominence-of each has justified their separate treatment. Here we can deal with the more mundane side of preparedness, or readiness; planning; force levels; training status; arms and equipment; and shortages, replacements, and supply. All of this should be judged not in terms of some ideal standard of preparedness but against the realistic standard of enemy preparedness.

Preparedness has never been reckoned the strong suit of U.S. military capacity. More or less invariably, the outbreak of war has meant frantic improvisation, not least in raising, arming, training, and deploying ground forces adequate to the conflict. Each of our case studies more or less illustrates the point. Earlier wars were fought by volunteer soldiers usually innocent of prewar military experience or training. After the Civil War, the Regular Army, the National Guard, and-eventually-laws prescribing compulsory and reserve service became central features of readiness for the first battle. Yet this gradual shift from pure improvisation to a measure of organized preparedness does not explain very much about what happens in the first battle. Because combat is a two-sided activity, our attention is quickly drawn to the other side and to the question of how well prepared the enemy was to fight.

British forces (with German allies) in 1776, Japanese in 1942, German in 1943, and Vietnamese in 1965 are the outstanding cases of a veteran enemy defeating or severely punishing its U.S. Army opponent. At the Rio Grande, on San Juan Hill, at Cantigny, and in South Korea, the Army faced an enemy force modern for its day but with serious weaknesses. The Mexican Army in 1846 was afflicted by the troubles of Mexican society itself: an officer corps with little professionalism and a soldiery drawn from the lowest economic and educational levels. The Spanish garrison of Cuba was a veteran fighting force, but it was dispersed and aware that its chances for victory were dim. The German reserve formations facing the U.S. 1st Division in 1918 were composed of older men, something less than the best of the German Army, and the survivors of more than three years of grueling warfare. The North Korean Army in 1950, armed and trained by the Soviet Union, had only the cutting edge of modernity-automatic weapons in the hands of a numerous infantry who knew how to use them, mortars and light artillery to support the infantry, and Soviet T-34 tanks that could not be stopped by available U.S. antitank weapons in the opening battles of July. But the UN counteroffensive of September revealed serious weaknesses in the North Korean Army-in logistics, mobility, and command-and-control-weaknesses that had been present from the outset. Enemy forces at Queenston in 1812 and at Bull Run in 1861 were not much better prepared than the U.S. Army they faced.

Relative numbers in each first battle, often seen as a crude indicator of strength, deserve attention. Only at Long Island and Osan/Naktong, where the Americans were greatly outnumbered, and at San Juan and Buna, where Americans greatly outnumbered their enemies, were relative numbers crucial. In each case, the more numerous side won the battle. In the other six first battles, there was either rough equivalence of deployed numbers or at least not enough disparity in numbers to be a major factor in the result. Some Canadian historians emphasize that "thousands" of Americans at Queenston were defeated by a few hundred men, but this enlarges the battle area unrealistically to include all those U.S. troops east of the Niagara River.

Numerical strength might be seen not as a static part of the prebattle balance sheet but as a dynamic indicator of accessibility and isolation of the battle area. For whatever reasons, U.S. numerical superiority at Queenston in 1812 simply could not be brought to bear. Even a much larger U.S. strategic reserve could not have stopped the North Koreans in July 1950 because of the remoteness of the battle area and the 1imits on global mobility. Less Confederate mobility almost certainly have meant a victory for numerically superior Federal troops at Bull Run in 1861, whatever gross deficiencies afflicted the Union Army. The isolation of the Spanish and Japanese garrisons in 1898 and 1943 meant victory for numerically stronger U.S. forces, despite heavy casualties.

Numbers count in the first battle, as does the readiness of the enemy to fight, but only up to a point; at that point, attention swings back to the U.S. side. Almost by definition, the first battle is fought by green troops. Although there is an enormous range of qualitative difference between the raw levies that fought at Queenston or Bull Run and the professional forces that attacked at the Rio Grande, Cantigny, or the Ia Drang, in these five (as well as the other five) first battles the U.S. Army betrayed its greenness. Even the most intensive training will be less-than-adequate preparation for actual combat. Veterans of combat agree that certain vital lessons can be learned only under fire. In general, it seems that nothing but experience teaches soldiers and armies how to hold the delicate balance between courage and caution; too much audacity jeopardizes the survival on which victory must rest, but excessive caution usually means that fleeting chances to win are missed. The best prepared U.S. Army forces (the 1st Division in 1918 and the 1st Cavalry Division in 1965) seemed too reckless of their own losses, brave and aggressive but seriously hurt by their first battles; they were blooded by them, literally. Something similar may have happened to the 2d Division under General Lawton at El Caney, where the objective got lost in the sheer fury of the battle, and at Buna, where senior officers seemed unwilling to assess realistically either the problems of the battle area or the limitations of U.S. forces.

Troops less well prepared-at Long Island, Rio Grande, Kasserine, Osan/Naktong-or those hardly prepared at all-Queenston and Bull Run-tend to err in the other direction, becoming discouraged by early losses and difficulties, although the accounts in this volume indicate that we must not be too pessimistic about the fighting capacity of inadequately trained troops, provided they get minimally competent leadership.

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