Sunday, January 11

The First SEALs and the unexpected in war

The podcast of John Batchelor's discussion last night with Patrick K. O'Donnell makes a great introduction to Patrick's latest book, First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America's Most Elite Unit.

John has a rare gift for talking about historic battles, and combat historian and documentarian Patrick K. O'Donnell has a rare gift for researching and writing about them.  So when those two get together to tell tales from one of Patrick's books, as they've done several times over the years, it's always a memorable night in radioland. 

And that's how, in the space of 24 hours, I went from the doldrums listening to war historian Bevin Alexander recount for John's radio audience the grim tale of Gen. Stonewall Jackson's trials serving inane commanders to laughter and awe, as I listened to exploits of the first SEALs -- not to be confused with the first Navy SEALs.
The first SEALs were a creation of Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS.  Of course it wasn't all fun and games but put together a team of incredibly reckless and brave mavericks, outfit them with newfangled frogmen suits, and send them off to fight a new kind of war, and what happens is a whale of an inspirational tale.

Patrick combed through tens of thousands of documents and interviewed surviving members of the team to piece together the history of the first SEALs and bring the story to public light.  I should add that in addition to his work as an author he made it his life's mission to collect and document oral recollections of combat veterans; there are 4,000 of these archived on his website.

Ah! I see that Batchelor's war history offering for Saturday  is his conversation with Stephen Budiansky about about Budiansky's book, Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare.  I'll save listening to that one for another time.

Gee I'll bet Colonel John Boyd, The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, would have loved the John Batchelor Show war histories. Stonewall Jackson would surely have been a regular listener also.  But what to say about the heights and depths of war fighting, both on display during Batchelor's Thursday and Friday shows?  I don't think I'll ever recover from learning on Thursday that the European prosecution of the First World War faithfully repeated the very worst mistakes of war planners during the Civil War.

Bevin Alexander observed that war is a mad enterprise. But how the madness plays out, whether the actors are foolish or wise, is what makes the history of warfare an endless fascination. 

Yet there is something else at work that makes the study of war important.  Perhaps the most profound observation ever made about warfare is from the German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke:  “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Of course the observation doesn't always hold true but I was reminded of it when Alexander described how Gen. Stonewall Jackson died.  He was killed by friendly fire -- a complete fluke.  The small party he was with during an inspection tour was mistaken in the dark and vision-hampering terrain for enemy infiltrators.  His own troops opened fire, and that was that.

Yet it so happens he was killed at just the time General Robert E. Lee had finally agreed to allow Jackson to fight a battle his way, that being the rational way.

If Jackson had lived, it's possible and even likely Lee would have allowed him to enact his plan for bringing the Union side to its knees and fairly fast, and in pretty bloodless fashion. 
In that event, from Alexander's digging into the war records, the Confederates could have rather easily won what today is still considered by most students of American history to be a war they couldn't have won.

Our daily lives are one unexpected event after another, but it's easy to overlook just how much the unexpected intervenes because very rarely do interventions in prosaic situations make history and entire epochs.  It's only in war that the unexpected can make its most striking statements. As such, war history is a lesson in humility, a crucially important lesson to learn and not forget.


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