Friday, June 27, 2008

Military Incompetence

I often find myself telling people that the Iraq War is actually going above average for a military operation. It's not that individual people in the military are incompetent, but that the military as an organization -- any military, not just the USA's -- is incompetent. This is well known by those who have studied (or lived) military history. Unfortunately military history is not being taught much nowadays, and this is to our detriment: it removes our ability to place contemporary military actions in their larger context.

I just finished reading a book that illustrates the chaotic and unorganized nature of warfare well: Peleliu: Tragic Triumph: The Untold Story of the Pacific War's Forgotten Battle by Bill Ross. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War 2, made even worse by the fact that the island never needed to be taken, and they knew it beforehand. It served no purpose, and even the reasons some thought it should be could have been accomplished by just bombing the hell out of it rather than taking the island meter by meter.

And, of course, like all battles, it was characterized by massive incompetence. The decision to prepare for the battle on the island of Pavuvu, for example, was just a massive screw-up that almost defeated the Marines before they even went into battle. But here's one example from the first several days of the battle of Peleliu:

Someone in the chain of command decided to try a new method of getting fresh water ashore to resupply the troops. At first glance, it looked like a good idea. Perhaps it was -- if someone, anyone, had displayed common sense. But no one did.

Instead of bringing potable water ashore in amtracs carrying 1,000-gallon trailer tanks pulled by jeeps or trucks, or on pallets loaded with conventional 5-gallon steel jerry cans, why not bring the precious cargo to the beach in 55-gallon barrels previously used to hold gasoline or diesel fuel?

The reasoning behind the scheme had a measure of undeniable logic. The steel drums took up less valuable space on landing craft, and a few could be carried in each amtrac with assault forces. Once ashore, they could be tipped over and rolled to waterheads by shore party troops, becoming easily accessible sources to replenish supplies of drinking water.


No effort had been made to purge the barrels of the residue of petroleum they still contained. Thus every drop of water was contaminated and literally unfit for human consumption. To drink it was an open invitation to disaster, but many hundreds of unwary Marines did despite the evil taste -- and the inescapable consequences.

Half-crazed with unbearable thirst and overpowering heat, the men gulped down canteens full of the vile mixture. Within minutes, many doubled over with hellish stomach cramps. Others were hit with violent and uncontrolled coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea.
People who have not been in the military are shocked and baffled by such a scenario. Those of us who have actually been in the military either shake our heads or laugh and say, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

No comments: