Troops of the German Troops of the German “Afrika Korps” riding in a captured American halftrack, North Africa, 1943

Submitted by U.S. Army Captain Douglas Livermore:

In An Army at Dawn, acclaimed author Rick Atkinson chronicles the initial battles of the U.S. Army waged in late 1942 and early 1943 against German, Italian, and Vichy French forces across North Africa.  A recurring theme throughout Atkinson’s work is the lack of preparation prevalent in the U.S. Army to wage modern, combined arms warfare against the battle-hardened German “Afrika Korps”, particularly as evidenced by the crushing blows inflicted on the American forces at Kasserine Pass in February 1943.  The bloody toll paid by the U.S. Army in 1943, in which the American forces alone suffered more than five times the losses in men and equipment as compared to the Germans, was a direct result of the failure of the Americans to encourage innovation and “unconventional” development during the interwar period of 1919-1939.  While other nations, particularly those who had “lost” World War II (most notably Germany), undertook exceptional reforms to modernize their militaries, the U.S. stifled progress and discouraged pioneering leaders to such an extent that many chose to leave the service or were forced out.  As a result, the U.S. entered into World War II with vastly inferior equipment, doctrine, and training.  Today, as the U.S. Department of Defense undertakes a massive drawdown of forces at the conclusion (such as it can be considered) of the so-called “Global War on Terror”, it is imperative that steps be undertaken to retain innovative leaders and encourage unconventional development.  In an era in which potential opponents are pursuing nuclear, chemical, biological, network-centric, and other devastating asymmetric methods of attacking US interests, it is more important than ever to guarantee the ability to succeed during the initial stages of future conflicts.  To do otherwise would lose the distinctive edge gained over the last 12 years of combat and cripple the U.S.’s ability to remain responsive and effective in the face of emergent international threats.  In effect, a failure of this magnitude could create a “hollow” force very similar to that experienced during the opening days of America’s involvement in World War II, but without the opportunity to recover from initial setbacks.

Buoyed by the relative ease by which the Central Powers of Germany and Austria had been defeated in 1918, the U.S. Department of War (predecessor of today’s Department of Defense) generally saw little reason to innovate as it undertook a massive drawdown.  This outlook was further supported by a growing trend toward isolationism that gripped the U.S. following “The Great War”.  Many of the once-eager volunteer soldiers gladly left the service and returned to their civilian lives thinking they had won “The War to End All Wars”.  For those undecided few, the post-war Army became a less and less attractive option as the “old breed”, sons of storied military families, closed ranks and careerism crept back into the system.  At the height of the military build-up, commissions and promotions had been granted widely, often thanks to political connections or recruitment successes.  Such was the situation in the case of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, an influential native of New York who raised and then led the “Fighting 69th” during combat operations in France.

Major William Donovan in France, 1918 Major William Donovan in France, 1918

Originally commissioned as a major in 1917, Donovan rose to the rank of full Colonel by the end of the war the next year while also earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions at Landres-et-Saint George in France.  Despite his rapid rise and valorous cachet, Donovan quickly dismissed offers of a permanent Army commission following his return from France, disparaging the preeminence of “careerist” in the post-conflict military.  The “careerism” and political maneuverings of these fellow officers disgusted Donovan, leaving him little option.  Rather, Donovan entered into the law profession, serving as a U.S. Attorney before running unsuccessfully for the governorship.  Most importantly, Donovan travelled extensively throughout Europe, making fortuitous contacts with a number of prominent and well-placed people across the Continent.  Fully believing that there would be another global conflict, Donovan worked tirelessly during the interwar period to encourage the formation of an intelligence-gathering agency.  However, as a civilian, Donovan received considerable resistance from the hide-bound Army, which did possess a “military intelligence” capability that focused exclusively on tactical- and operational-level military intelligence.  Conversely, during the interwar period, the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and the German military intelligence agency (Abwehr) thoroughly infiltrated the U.S. and provided vital information.  America possessed no similar capability and as a result was essentially blind to the actions and intentions of its opponents.  Finally, in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Donovan to establish the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – precursor of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army Special Forces).  Unfortunately, the OSS faced considerable challenges and, despite its impressive operational accomplishments during the war, failed to match the intelligence-collection capabilities of its contemporaries.  Had Donovan remained in uniform after WWI, there is a strong possibility that he could have encouraged the creation of an intelligence agency to rival better-prepared international competitors.  Instead, the U.S. was forced to play “catch up” throughout the war and never achieved parity in its wartime intelligence capabilities.

Perhaps the most egregious example of the detrimental effect on innovation caused by the post-war drawdown was that of General William “Billy” Mitchell. Mitchell commanded all U.S. air combat units in France during World War I and after the war remained an extremely vocal proponent of airpower. In his dogged pursuit of this goal, Mitchell created some powerful enemies, such as General of the Army, John “Black Jack” Pershing and even the then-Secretary of the Navy, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, Mitchell refused to be silenced, arguing that airpower would soon render massive battleships and standing armies obsolete. Naval dreadnoughts cost significantly more to build and maintain than aerial bombers and fighter aircraft, while Mitchell argued that adequate fleets of such aircraft could effectively obliterate these more expensive “trappings” of the bygone era at a fraction of the cost. These competing views came to a head in 1921, when the Navy and Army Air Corps “competed” in a widely-covered exercise, called “Project B”, to test Mitchell’s theory that airpower could defeat conventional surface ships. Despite the Navy’s best efforts to apply favorable rules to the experiment, Mitchell’s hand-selected aircrews decimated the Navy’s “fleet” of surrendered German warships with aerial bombs. The results made national headlines but did little to change the spending or development priorities of the War Department. For his efforts, the U.S. Army was quick to shuttle Mitchell off to other jobs where it was hoped that he would fade into obscurity. Rather, Mitchell maintained his personal “crusade”, writing incessantly and convincingly about the need to develop American airpower. His efforts encouraged some advances, such as modest increases in the speed, range, and altitude capabilities in inter-war American aircraft. However, American military aircraft development lagged far behind that of other world powers. Finally, Mitchell was court martialed in 1925 after he accused his superiors at the War Department with incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” Mitchell was found guilty of speaking against his superiors but, rather than face the humiliation of dismissal from the service, resigned. He continued writing about the importance of airpower to future conflicts but with little impact, and he died bitter and in relative obscurity in 1936.

Billy Mitchell's courts-martial, 1925 Billy Mitchell’s courts-martial, 1925

Other nations were not so quick to dismiss Mitchell’s theories.  The Five-Power Treaty, otherwise known as the Washington Naval Treaty, was signed by the Japanese in 1922 despite the general consensus that the treaty was disadvantageous to the Japanese as it limited the ability to produce battleships.  However, realizing the destructive potential of aviation, the Japanese chose to place considerable emphasis on this particular area of naval power.  As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty, two incomplete battlecruisers were converted into aircraft carriers, one of which was the Akagi.  The Akagi served as the flagship for the five aircraft carrier task force from which the Japanese later launched the wildly successful attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  Likewise, Germany under Adolf Hitler seized onto the development of military airpower, designing and mass-producing aircraft far superior to the majority of those of the U.S. at the start of World War II.  After 1933, the Germans invested large percentages of their military budgets into the development of airpower.  German aircraft continued to set world speed, endurance, and altitude records and these design advancements were rapidly integrated into the manufacture of military aircraft.  International military observers studying the Spanish Civil War were amazed by the quality of equipment and the skills of the pilots that the Germans fielded in the “Condor Legions” that supported Francisco Franco.  The Germans produced incredibly fast and maneuverable fighters and medium bombers armed with advanced aerial munitions, such as cannons.  Alternately, the U.S. entered into World War II with aircraft that were generally slower, less maneuverable, and considerably under-armed.  Losses during the initial year of the war were extremely high as a result.

The failure of the War Department to retain the best and brightest officers during the interwar period discouraged innovation and impeded the development of equipment, doctrine, and training during the interwar period.  The overwhelming focus on careerism and orthodoxy drove many extremely talented and unconventional leaders from the ranks.  In addition to the immediate loss of intellectual capital suffered, these traumatic experiences, such as in the court martial of Mitchell, undoubtedly prevented other less bold souls within the military community from advocating for change.  As a result, modernization of the U.S. military lagged far behind that of the other world powers, creating the conditions leading to the terrible losses of 1942 and 1943.  Fortunately for the U.S. and Allied Powers, these losses proved recoverable, and the U.S. Army gradually improved in performance and capability while also enjoying the advantages of superior logistics and manpower reserves to ultimately defeat the Axis Powers in 1945.  However, future battlefields will prove far less forgiving, as likely opponents pursue asymmetric capabilities with potentially catastrophic capabilities.  Nuclear, biological, chemical, network-centric attack and other as-of-yet unimagined methods of warfare will make the initial days, if not hours, of any future war significantly more definitive than in past conflicts.  Unlike at the beginning of World War II, it is very likely that there will be no opportunity to recover from initial setbacks as the U.S. was forced to do following the monumental defeats at the beginning of World War II.  In its report on the inability of the U.S. government to thwart the al-Qaeda attack in September of 2001, the Congressional Commission found that, “the most important failure [concerning the 9/11 attacks] was one of imagination.”  It is possible that the post-war period we are experiencing today could see the loss of those very leaders with the imagination and foresight to prevent the “next 9-11”.  The U.S. military must do everything in its power to ensure that it retains the best and the brightest leaders, while fostering a climate in which intelligent and innovative leaders feel encouraged to propose controversial and unconventional ideas. 

Douglas Livermore is a Special Forces officer with leadership and operational planning experience obtained over nearly a decade of military service. In addition to multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug has engaged in several contingency operations in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda, and Djibouti.  In addition to holding degrees in Military History and Military Arts and Sciences from The U.S. Military Academy at West Point his experiences have provided him unique and detailed insights into the areas of unconventional/guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and international stability operations.