Wartime Lessons in Leadership

With the reelection of President Bush, the world has been put on notice that his doctrine of preemption in waging the war on terror will continue and that the U.S. will stay on offense. If new theaters open up and conflicts escalate, the country’s mettle and resolve could be rigorously tested. And that is where books like Oliver North‘s War Stories II: Heroism in the Pacific (Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS) are important. They are important because in times of terrible sacrifice, we need to be reminded of the immutable laws that have governed humanity and war–from ancient times to World War II when our forbears sacrificed so much to preserve our freedom. In his War Stories II, North proves a worthy heir to the long line of military historians that begins in the West with Herodotus, the man who chronicled the Persian invasions of Greece in the 5th century B.C. The reader will find many of the elements and themes in War Stories II reminiscent of the first master, Herodotus. North’s narrative covers the major campaigns of the Pacific, beginning with Pearl Harbor and ending with MacArthur’s occupation of Japan, and is also the account of a massive confrontation between antithetical systems, augmented as well by riveting eyewitness accounts. The reader of War Stories II is also reminded that conflicts through the ages have often been characterized by a clash of civilizations where the unlikely victors will marshal some superior cultural element that enables them to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. After a year of defeats, on Aug. 7, 1942, allied “Leathernecks” captured an airfield (they renamed Henderson Field) on Guadalcanal at the lower end of the Solomon Islands. The Japanese were planning to use the airstrip as a needed refueling base for aircraft, fighters and bombers, in preparation for the invasion of Australia and ultimately a total domination of the Pacific. It was the first beachhead captured by the Allies inside the new Japanese Empire. Our men on the ground were the first inside enemy lines. Huge naval and air battles took place in the waters off Guadalcanal as the Americans struggled to supply and reinforce Allied troops who refused to retreat. And six months after our initial landing, the Allies still held the island airfield although we had lost 1,600 lives, 24 ships and 600 aircraft. The Japanese had lost 25,000 lives and 24 ships including irreplaceable carriers and battleships. It had literally been the most momentous and pivotal military campaign up to its time. North quotes Adm. Halsey, “Before Guadalcanal, the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours.” North reminds his reader how cultural differences distinguished our soldiers from the Japanese. The enemy would nearly always fight to the death rather than suffer the dishonor of surrender. And he had contempt for any prisoner who fell into his hands. This led to the atrocities committed on the Bataan death march and in the slave labor camps throughout the Pacific. I would recommend War Stories II to the student of warfare who is interested in what lessons it offers for the war on terror. The President’s opposition has accused him of not putting enough troops into Iraq in order to quickly subdue all the insurgents. One lesson that we may need to relearn is that, even with a winning strategy, costly mistakes will nearly always be made. This is due to the fact that, in war, one is fighting a thinking enemy that urgently wishes to survive. Few historians will fault FDR for not conceiving and implementing a winning strategy for defeating Japan. However, North reminds us that the cost in lives lost in the capture of a tiny atoll, Tarawa, made it by today’s standards, not just a mistake but an unmitigated disaster. Part of a string of tiny atolls that are the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa is smaller in square area than the Pentagon and its parking lots. But the Japanese had an airstrip there that the war planners felt had to be eliminated. The island was defended by 5,000 elite, battle-hardened naval infantrymen and a 1,000 conscripted Koreans who had constructed incredibly durable concrete blockhouses and machine gun and mortar emplacements all of which survived the pre-invasion bombardment. To make matters worse, the Japanese commander knew something that the Americans did not. The reef surrounding the island would prevent landing craft from crossing except at high tide. The invasion took place at low tide causing all the men to disembark out on the reef and where they were in range of withering machine gun fire and mortars. For those today who think the Iraq war is going badly, consider that in the two and a half days of fighting on Tarawa, 6,000 were killed. All 5,000 Japanese defenders were killed. The U.S. lost 1,000 Marines and 1,500 wounded. Eddie Albert, already a successful movie star at 33 years old, volunteered for the Navy after Pearl Harbor. Under fire, he made 26 trips to the beaches of Tarawa to evacuate the wounded. He was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor. The lessons for today’s Hollywood elites and their fair-weather devotion to country hardly require further explanation. Another lesson we can take from War Stories II has to do with dangers inherent in our adversarial, some might say, perfidious free press. Many have been appalled by the way our own “mainstream” press has covered the war in Iraq, the endless stories about the Abu Ghareb scandal are only one example of its anti-war bias. Early in the darkest, most dangerous period of the war, the U.S. was able to win the battle of Midway, because we had broken the Japanese code which shifted the element of surprise. However, word of this was leaked to one of FDR’s political adversaries, Robert McCormick, who owned the Chicago Tribune, and who made it front page news across the country. The Japanese quickly responded by changing their communication codes which no doubt caused inestimable loss of life. Many pundits, particularly liberal critics of President Bush, have argued that we have no reason to expect that we will be successful in remaking the Middle East, fundamentally changing a culture that has been largely antagonistic toward the West for more than 1,300 years. The answer to whether the Bush plan is possible can be found in North’s last chapter. Although the Allied leaders, on July 17, 1945, issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender, the reader learns that privately Stalin and even Churchill tried to talk Truman out of this position. In fact, Stalin was secretly plotting with Japan to ally with her if an armistice could be negotiated. Truman realized that if we were to coexist with a peaceful Japan, we would have to replace its centuries-old feudal/imperial system with a democracy. Japan’s warlords rejected surrender terms in favor of a national suicide pact. Matching Japanese ruthlessness with an even greater ruthlessness, six days later the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. It has been nearly 60 years since Japan adopted a new culture, governed by a democratic constitution and, so far, it has remained a trusted ally and the peace has held. The President’s ardent skeptics should remember Truman’s observation, “Men make history and not the other way ’round. In periods when there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” To purchase War Stories II: Heroism in the Pacific, click here.