Crusade in Europe
From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. 4
Hankey: Man of Secrets, Vol. 1, 1877–1918
The Bayeux Tapestry: A Comprehensive Survey
War offers ample opportunities for most varieties of foolishness. Among these, there is one sort of folly to which war is especially well suited: the lust for glory. One can hardly ever be sure about a commander’s motives in any one case, but there are familiar signs of that lust: a readiness to accept a challenge to fight under unfavorable circumstances; a preference for taking action independent of allies or colleagues; an unreasoning predisposition for offense rather than defense; and an effort to seize a decisive role in winning victory. Examples come easily to mind. Antony accepted Agrippa’s challenge to fight by sea at Actium, though he was stronger by land. In 1421 the Duke of Clarence violated the orders of his brother, King Henry V, and died attacking five thousand French troops with 150 mounted men-at-arms and no archers. To recapture the glory he had won by riding around McClellan’s army in search of its flank during the defense of Richmond in 1862, J.E.B. Stuart in June and July of 1863 led his cavalry on a wild ride through Maryland and Pennsylvania, even though it left the Army of Northern Virginia without the reconnaissance it needed in the week before the Battle of Gettysburg. Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. commanded the Third Fleet to chase Japanese battleships and carriers while other Japanese battleships threatened American soldiers landing on the beaches of Leyte Island.
Though there always will be soldiers and sailors “seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon’s mouth,” it seems that the vainglory of individual commanders has lately become less dangerous in war, as improvements in the technology of communications and surveillance have increased the ability of commanders to control subordinates. But there is a continuing danger from an institutionalized vainglory. Sometimes a branch of the military may try to maximize its opportunity for glory, turning its back on other less glamorous tasks that are really needed. This can become an ideology, like the French army’s doctrine in 1914 of “l’attaque à outrance.” The military may even adopt weapons that serve more to enhance its glory than the likelihood of victory, and weapons themselves may become imbued with a glamour that stands in the way of sensible decisions about their use. One can find instances throughout history, and they extend unfortunately to the present day, with dangerous effects on our current defense policy.
On February 1, 1917, Germany began a program of unrestricted submarine warfare. The effect on British shipping was devastating. During the first three months German U-boats sank 844 ships, at a cost of only ten of their submarines. According to Winston Churchill, “That was, in my opinion, the gravest peril that we faced in all the ups and downs of that war.”
It should have been obvious that the solution to the U-boat threat was to require merchant ships to sail in convoy. As Churchill later explained in The World Crisis,
The size of the sea is so vast that the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.