Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Generals, Blunders and Cold Courage

The books that fell off my bookshelf into my hands most recently were coincidentally of a type. One is a tattered copy of Lincoln’s Generals, by T. Harry Williams (1953), which I picked up free at the end of a garage sale, and the other is Sir Basil Liddel Hart’s History of the Second Word War (1970), which I've had around the house for at least 20 years.
In Hawaii last summer we visited Pearl Harbor, where I realized  how little I know about the war in the Pacific. So when I returned home I read Liddell hart's chapters “Japan’s Tide of Conquest” and (138 pages later), "The Tide Turns in the Pacific."  I enjoyed both so much that I went back to the start and began reading the whole way through. I'm now safely into 1943 and enjoying the book much more – the early years of the war are heartbreaking for the Allied side.
What you learn from studying the Union generals in the Civil War, or the various commanders in WWII, is how often leaders blunder. No one knows why the Japanese failed to destroy the shipbuilding resources and fuel storage tanks of Pearl Harbour; that could have significantly delayed the U.S. Navy's remarkable comeback.
Hitler himself, whose mad hatreds won so many early victories (to the endless surprise of his generals) saved the Allied cause several times: by not annihilating the British Expeditionary Force as it retreated from France, through Dunkirk, in 1940; and again by turning on the Soviet Union in 1941 before he had pacified his western front.
The Allies themselves made mistake after costly mistake. After the Belgians failed to blow up a few key bridges, the numerically superior French armies panicked at the Nazi tank columns invading from the north (instead of dashing themselves to pieces on the Maginot line). The Brits moved a weak force into Greece that only served to attract the Nazis' wrath. In Crete, the New Zealanders ceded the airport to a smaller attacking force and failed to counterattack while they had the manpower advantage – dooming them to defeat and capture.
Several times the British failed to chase Rommel out of Africa when they had the chance. And by building up their defences in Egypt, the Brits doomed Singapore, a more strategic asset.
Even more fundamentally, prior to Pearl Harbor the Americans and British cut off Japan’s oil supplies, but they didn't adequately prepare for the Pacific war that they should have known would follow.
In the Civil War, the North had a huge advantage in manpower, armaments and manufacturing muscle. Yet the generals of the Union Army were timid. Time after time, Gen. George McClelland (facing Lincoln in photo at right) and his ilk failed to move against the Confederates when victory seemed possible; the generals constantly overestimated the size of their opposition, and were always waiting for more supplies, more certainty.
Even after Gettysburg, as Lee’s beaten army was fleeing south towards the safety of Virginia, the Union army failed to chase the Rebels and create a rout that could have ended the war two years early. Only U.S. Grant, fighting on the Mississippi front, harried his foes consistently, using whatever resources he had and never whining for more.
For years, Lincoln told his generals that the strategic objective was the destruction of Lee’s army. He despaired at how often his generals forgot that objective. Instead they would bring him plans for seizing this city or that bit of territory, while avoiding a major battle. They couldn't understand that the war would not end until Lee could no longer threaten them.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize the decision-makers after the fact, long after “the fog of war” has lifted. But it is astounding to see how often bad decisions are made in the heat of battle. It’s a useful reminder why bold initiatives often succeed in times of confusion and uncertainty.
Which should be very encouraging to entrepreneurs assailing established markets.  If you can sow confusion and discord with a sudden frontal attack on a market, it is very likely that your bigger opponents will make mistakes in reaction – giving you a chance to consolidate your early gains and win a victory.
Read up sometime on the battle for Tunis, and how German general Walther Nehring and his outnumbered defenders outwitted, outhustled and outbluffed a huge Allied attacking force, thus prolonging the war in Africa by a full six months. Speed, flexibility, courage and yes, desperation, can work wonders against confused opponents who don't have a clear idea how to win.
There seems to be a lot of those people out there.
Above: Gen. Walther Nehring (at right) with Rommel (in cool peaked cap).

1 comment:

David Winston said...

A lot of people use wartime analogies when talking about business, but you did a really detailed job making the military/marketing comparisons. And I'll definitely follow up on your book recommendations.

Great blog.