John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column
RALEIGH – The U.S. commander “is lost,” exclaimed one of the world’s most celebrated military geniuses, as he avidly followed the conduct of the American invasion through media accounts. “He has been carried away by success! He can’t take the [capital] city, and he can't fall back on his base.”
The American forces, he concluded, were too few and had moved precipitously into the interior to take the enemy capital without subduing urban centers and without securing lines of supply. The general pointed out that while enemy armies had largely melted away when confronted by American arms, smaller groups of lightly equipped but mobile paramilitary zealots were successfully staging raids on U.S. units.
Meanwhile, the first-term American president – a Southerner scorned by many in Washington as naïve and in over his head – faced significant opposition to his war policy in Congress and among a growing anti-war movement led by writers, intellectuals, college professors, and religious leaders. The president’s critics questioned his stated, high-minded intentions for initiating military action, arguing that it was really motivated by greed. They denied that America was acting in self-defense; one intemperate anti-war member of Congress earned the sobriquet “Spotty Abe” for a fiery speech in which he demanded that the president identify the spot of American soil that had been invaded by the enemy.
Okay, by now you’ve probably guessed that I’m not describing the first few days of U.S. military action in Iraq. The year is 1847, the conflict is the Mexican War, the president is North Carolina native James K. Polk, the antiwar congressman is the young Illinois Whig Abraham Lincoln, and the armchair general sharply critical of the American war effort was Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, following the war by newspaper from his home in England.
This history lesson offers powerful insights into the current situation. Polk’s initial strategy for the Mexican War was a sort of 19th century version of “shock and awe.” At the outbreak of the war in May 1846, Polk ordered a three-pronged assault: an Army expedition to seize New Mexico, a naval and irregular effort to take California, and a series of regular Army actions in Northeastern Mexico. The idea was not to send American boys into central Mexico, where the bulk of the population lived. Unfortunately, while these U.S. thrusts were largely successful, they did not shock the Mexican government into suing for peace.
Part of the reason was the American government’s foolish decision to allow former President Santa Anna, then residing in exile in Cuba, to return to Mexico with the promise that he would assume control and sign a peace treaty. International pressure, primarily from the European powers with major investments in Mexico, was one factor leading President Polk to agree to this fool’s bargain – a cautionary tale against letting European countries with their own agendas interfere with American war aims.
After Santa Anna broke his promise, Polk changed plans. He authorized Gen. Winfield Scott to make an audacious invasion of central Mexico and take the capital. Making excellent use of America’s naval superiority, Scott made an amphibious landing near the fortified port of Vera Cruz in March 1847. By September, Scott’s army stood victorious within the walls of Mexico City and a battalion of U.S. Marines occupied “the halls of Montezuma.”
Scott had tossed aside conventional ideas about how to wage the campaign, realizing that a quick thrust (moving mostly on foot, his speed was amazing for the time) and a war of maneuver was the best way for his relatively small expeditionary force of 12,000 to prevail against more numerous but poorly trained and led Mexican conscripts. Though largely forgotten by many Americans today, this was considered one of the greatest feats of military science in centuries. Even the Duke of Wellington came to regret his earlier armchair criticism. After the Mexican War, he proclaimed Winfield Scott to be “the greatest living soldier” and urged young British officers to study the Mexican campaign as one “unsurpassed in military annals.”
So calm down and greet the pronouncements of today’s armchair generals and breathless media commentators with the appropriate amount of skepticism. I, too, certainly wish we had additional ground forces in Iraq, though the fault lies primarily with unreliable allies rather than incompetent commanders. But put in military and historical perspective, the Second Gulf War seems likely to join the exploits of President Polk and General Scott on the list of America’s greatest military victories.
And the Duke of Wellington, were he around to witness it, would probably greet its inevitable conclusion with raves and astonishment.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal, in print and on the web at www.CarolinaJournal.com.