Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, who oversaw ground combat on Guadalcanal during its earliest, most grueling phase, likewise hit on a notion he termed “active defense.” Once U.S. Marine defenders had withstood the shock of early Japanese efforts to wrest back Henderson Field, and once American convoys had replenished manpower and war materiel on Guadalcanal, General Vandegrift started mixing offensive tactical forays into his predominantly defensive posture. The result: a hybrid form of defense that wore down a formidable, resolute foe, enabling U.S. forces to hold the airfield—America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Solomons. Mao would recognize and applaud Vandegrift’s operational artistry.
Lesson three: let’s not overstate the disparity between Eastern and Western ways of war. The great Michael Handel counsels that the differences are largely illusory, and that a universal logic of strategy transcends civilizations, ideologies and historical epochs. Not just Mao but King and Vandegrift fashioned virtually identical strategies for the weaker combatant. So, for that matter, did Julian S. Corbett. Such parallelism is no mere accident.
Guadalcanal, then, teaches that lesser priorities can upstage operations in ostensibly more pressing theaters of conflict. Strategists constantly evaluate and reevaluate their relative importance. The campaign also reminds us that strategists don’t vary radically from place to place or time to time. Not bad for a seventy-five-year-old fight over seemingly worthless ground.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018). He recently deployed to the Pacific with Carrier Strike Group 9, embarked in USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). The views voiced here are his alone.