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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Account is Always Settled in Blood

This is Steven Petrick posting.

There were a lot of things I learned while growing up and serving in the military. Some of them still haunt me from time to time. One of these is the "nightmare of combat command." When you are not in command, and you make a mistake, well you tend to pay for your mistake right then and there. You get killed, maybe you have the heartbreak of having a few comrades lose their lives with you, or sometimes a few of your friends pay for your mistake and you get to walk away.

When you are in a combat command it often becomes very different and much worse. When you are in a combat command, you often have the "luxury" of trying to redeem your error. The problem is that often the only way you can redeem the error is by spending blood, the blood of the men entrusted to your command. If you failed to occupy a hill (such as Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg), then to redeem the battle you may be sending troops to attack that hill again and again. This can happen in a battle (as did happen at Gettysburg), but sometimes it is just a matter that you, as the Commander, did not think a piece of ground important, until the enemy occupied it and suddenly you discover that it enfilades your line. Sometimes you think a piece of ground is perhaps more important than it is, and your decision to occupy it puts your men out of position, such as happened to the Union 3rd Corps under Dan Sickles the second day of Gettysburg. Sickles's men paid a heavy price.

Sometimes your mistakes are forced by an enemy. A series of "fixing attacks" launched by an enemy at your strong defensive position may hold your attention while he maneuvers to hit a flank you have failed to realize is exposed because the enemy is attacking where you thought he would. Maybe you know the flank is exposed and due to the repeated attacks you fail to issue the orders to cover the position. Or maybe you just get so wound up in your own genius attacking an enemy position that you discount the reports of your subordinates that another enemy force is advancing on your flank, as happened to General Pope at Second Manassas.

Any time you make a mistake when you are a combat commander, at some point the bill is going to come due in the form of the blood of the men entrusted to your command. Whether the mistake was due to your own neglect, or due to an enemy who managed to show you what you wanted to see until it was too late, or due to an enemy who pulled the magician's trick of waving his right hand in your face while his left plunged the dagger into your back.

It is very easy to see what we want to see, to interpret data as what we expect. At Chancellorsville Hooker was told of the Confederate troops moving towards his right, but interpreted the movement as a retreat, and did not even issue warnings to his right flank which he thought anchored on impenetrable terrain. At Shiloh Courthouse the Union soldiers were aware that Confederate troops were maneuvering to their front, but were still taken completely by surprise by the sudden assault. Their commander's had misinterpreted the movements and failed to entrench their men and set up security. Disaster was only narrowly averted and among the losses was General Prentiss's entire Union division, forced to surrender in the "Hornet's Nest."

Cardboard does not bleed, and however real the graphics may seem in your computer game, it is not real blood and guts splattering about. Keep in mind that in the real world there are real commanders doing all they can to limit the bill their men will pay, to take the lessons of history and of the commander's who have gone before them to keep the bills that must be paid as low as possible. General Lee was known as "The King of Spades" because he made his men dig in when they defended a position, because sweat is much cheaper than blood. As a Commander, you have to learn to press the men hard so that when the enemy comes they are ready, and you have not made mistakes by being lax, not occupying the hill because you wanted to give the men a rest and letting the enemy get there first.

Because, when the time comes in the real world and real combat, all accounts are settled in blood.