The Five Worst U.S. Battlefield Defeats—In History
Have we learned the right lessons?
Key Point: It is fashionable after the Cold War to avoid discussing battles, but there is still a lot to learn from them—including defeats.
Defeat can be an integral instrument of victory.
War is a competition between thinking, scheming, determined adversaries. Gaining a decisive advantage over the enemy is the ultimate high-ground. Sometimes this critical competitive edge comes from losing battles—when the loss sparks the actions that lead to winning.
For much of the 19th and 20th century, the Western way of war was battle-centric. Blame Waterloo (1815), the climatic one-shot campaign that ended Napoleon's run as the military master of Europe. Clausewitz and Jomini, the two-top commentators on Napoleonic warfare, went through a lot of ink describing the role of battle in diminishing the enemy's capacity to wage war. Meanwhile, Cressy's book on decisive battles of the Western World propelled combat into the center of Victorian pop culture.
An addictive attention to battle endured well into the next century, even with the advent of "push-button" nuclear warfare and the resurgence of messy, shadowy insurgencies like Vietnam. The rise of Hollywood over the course of the 20th century helped secure battle’s place high on the pedestal of pop culture. Battles have a strong narrative content—focused in time, place, and action. For cinema, they made the best kind of war stories. The Longest Day, an epic retelling of the Normandy invasion, proved a predictable hit with audiences.
Combat was not just for movies. Battle remained serious business for modern warriors. After Vietnam, the Pentagon talked about winning America's next "First Battle." That was supplanted by "Airland Battle." John Keegan's book The Face of Battle proved extremely influential with the U.S. military as the armed forces worked their way out of the funk of the post-Vietnam era.
U.S. military training focused like a laser on fighting battles. Army brigades sparred in the desert at the National Training Center. The Air Force had Red Flag. The Marines had 29 Palms. The Navy had its wargames.
That was then.
Today, battles seem to have lost their luster. Places like Fallujah are just exotic sounding names that strike a vague chord with most Americans.
Ambivalence over battle stems from the queasy feeling that combat just doesn't resolve anything anymore. Notions of conflict are more muddled now, with new terms like hybrid warfare, cyber conflict, and human, energy and climate security.
While the last century's fixation with battle might have been overly obsessive, the post-Cold War dismissal of the banality of battle is equally unhealthy. When enemies resort to armed conflict, battles can happen. It makes little sense to ignore the importance of combat.
Let's keep the study of battle.
On the other hand, remember battle is just one component of war, like an inning is just one part of a baseball game. The outcome of combat has relevance only in the context of the larger conflict.
All battles are worth reflection.
While students of battle tend to focus on what it takes to win a fight, it’s just as important to determine what can be learned from getting whipped.
Here are five battles from American history where losing wound up putting the nation on the path to victory.
5. The Battle of Long Island:
George Washington's effort to hold off the British Invasion of New York could not have gone worse. Luckily, the Continental Army avoided complete annihilation by slipping across the Long Island Sound, under cover of darkness. The battle itself was a humiliating defeat for Washington. But, the loss also revealed an insight that was key to the ultimate American success: The Continental Army could afford to lose battles; but if it remained an Army-in-being, the British couldn't declare victory. Washington rightly surmised that, as long as the enemy couldn't win the war, they would eventually lose.
4. Little Big Horn:
Custer had better days. When his small detachment of the 7th Cavalry was wiped out on the Montana plains, there were big repercussions. After the Civil War, the lion's share of the military budget went into the Army's coastal fortifications. The Army ground forces were mostly a constabulary, second-hand lot strewn across the Southern and Western states. Custer's last stand was a bit of a wake-up call. Congress began to supply better arms and equipment. The Army started on the long march to becoming a modern landpower. D-Day was more than a half-century in the future. But the journey from the Spanish-American War to World War I to World War II started out West.
3. Kasserine Pass:
No less an authority than General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, argued that the route to victory in World War II ran through Western Europe. The sooner the Allies invaded France the better. But to Marshall's chagrin, the American Army was detoured to North Africa. In its first major battle with the Nazis, the GIs learned they weren't ready for primetime. The list of shortfalls was long—bad senior leaders, poor air-ground coordination, inadequately trained troops, and on and on. Rather than being remembered as the horrific defeat that it was, the battle became the first lesson in learning how to win on the ground in modern war. Two years later, the Americans hit the beach in Normandy knowing far better how to confront the face of battle.
2. Task Force Smith:
North Korea invades. President Truman, while on break in Independence, Mo., quickly orders in U.S. troops. The closest forces are American occupation troops in Japan. Rushed to the front, they barely present a speed-bump to the invading army as it heads south. The tragedy of Task Force Smith is often recalled as a case study in unpreparedness. The troops had little training and rusty ammunition; some trudged to the front in sneakers because the Army was short on boots.
On the other hand, even if the task force had had been stocked by Rambo, the troops still would have been steam-rollered. The numbers they faced were just overwhelming. What's crucial about this battle is that it demonstrated Americans’ determination to act as a Cold War Asian-Pacific power, even in the face of defeat. There were terrible trials ahead—not just in Korea, but in Vietnam as well. Nonetheless, America stuck it out in Asia. Arguably that determination contributed to victory in the Cold War as well as the region’s development in the post-Cold War era.
1. Desert One:
Once the Iranian Revolution was underway, it became clear that the new regime in Tehran were not going to be our friends. Angry crowds seized the U.S. embassy. The staff was taken hostage. There were no signs the regime planned on giving them back. President Carter green-lighted a rescue mission by U.S. special operations forces. It does not go well. In fact, at Desert One, the designated landing site inside Iran, everything goes wrong. Nobody gets rescued. Servicemen die in a horrible, fiery crash. Maybe, technically this was not a battle, since the only enemies present proved to be misfortune and misjudgment.
Still, this was not one for the win column. But years later, the Senate Armed Services staff used the mission failure as a case-study to inform and push for joint reforms. Arguably, the operation was less about failures in joint-interservice cooperation than the staff contended. Nevertheless, highlighting the Desert One disaster served as the catalyst for the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, and those reforms helped revitalize the U.S. military in the 1980s.
Never underestimate the importance of battle in the struggle of fighting and winning wars. Never underestimate the importance of learning from losing for the task of turning defeat into victory.
The U.S. had its share of setbacks in the last decade. Rather than be demoralized by what has not worked out, Washington ought to be trying to figure out what will work. Let the debate begin on what is the Long War's most important lost battle.
A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Army, James Jay Carafano is now a Heritage Foundation vice president, overseeing the think tank’s research program on defense and foreign policy issues.
This first appeared in 2015. It is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons.