The Buzz

The U.S. Military’s 5 Biggest Victories (And 5 Most Stunning Defeats)

The Battle of Antietam resulted in 22,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the Americas. Despite massive numbers, a good working knowledge of Lee’s dispositions and a positional advantage, McClellan failed to inflict a serious defeat on the Confederates. Lee was able to withdraw in good order, suffering higher proportional casualties, but maintaining the integrity of his force and its ability to retreat safely into Confederate territory.

McClellan probably could not have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam (19th-century armies were devilishly difficult to annihilate, given the technology available), but he could have dealt it a far more serious setback. He vastly overestimated the size of Lee’s force, moved slowly to take advantage of clear opportunities and maintained poor communications with his subcommanders. A greater success at Antietam might have spared the Army of the Potomac the devastation of Fredericksburg, where Union forces launched a pointless direct assault against prepared Confederate positions.

Antietam was not a complete failure; the Army of Northern Virginia was hurt, and McClellan forced Lee out of Maryland. President Lincoln felt confident enough following the battle to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free slaves in rebellious states. Nevertheless, Antietam represented the best opportunity that the Union would have to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, which remained one of the Confederacy’s centers of gravity until 1865.

Operation Drumbeat: 

On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Germany’s treaty obligations to Japan did not require action in case of Japanese attack, but Germany nevertheless decided to make formal the informal war that it had been fighting with the United States in the Atlantic. Historically, this has been regarded as one of Hitler’s major blunders. At the time, however, it gave German submariners their first opportunity to feast upon American coastal shipping.

In the first six months of 1942, the U-boat force commanded by Admiral Doenitz deployed into the littoral of the eastern seaboard. The Germans had observed some restraint prior to Pearl Harbor in order to avoid incurring outright U.S. intervention. This ended with the Japanese attack. The German U-boats enjoyed tremendous success, as none of the U.S. Army Air Force, the U.S. Navy, or American civil defense authorities were well prepared for submarine defense. Coastal cities remained illuminated, making it easy for U-boat commanders to pick targets. Fearing a lack of escorts (as well as irritation on the part of the U.S. business community), the U.S. Navy (USN) declined to organize coastal shipping into convoys. The USN and U.S. Army Air Force, having fought bitterly for years, had not prepared the cooperative procedures necessary for fighting submarines.

The results were devastating. Allied shipping losses doubled from the previous year, and remained high throughout 1942. German successes deeply worried the British, such that they quickly dispatched advisors to the United States to help develop a concerted anti-submarine doctrine. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was (and is) immensely complicated, requiring a great deal of coordination and experience to pull off correctly. The United States had neither worked diligently on the problem prior to the war, nor taken the time to learn from the British. However, the USN would make good its mistake later in the war, developing into a very effective ASW force, and deploying its own submarines to great effect against the Japanese.

Across the Partition, 1950: 

Following the successful defense of Pusan, and the stunning victory on the beaches of Inchon, the United States Army and Marine Corps, with support of Republic of Korea forces, marched deep into North Korea in an effort to destroy the Pyongyang regime and turn over full control of the Korean Peninsula to Seoul. The United States saw a counteroffensive as an opportunity to roll back Communist gains in the wake of the Chinese Revolution, and punish the Communist world for aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

This was an operational and strategic disaster. As American forces approached the Chinese border on two widely divergent (and mutually unsupportable) axes, Chinese forces massed in the mountains of North Korea. Beijing’s diplomatic warnings became increasingly shrill, but fresh off the victory at Inchon, few in the United States paid any attention. China was impoverished and militarily weak, while the Soviet Union had displayed no taste for direct intervention.

When the Chinese counterattacked in November 1950, they threw back U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces with huge loss of life on both sides. For a time, it appeared that the People’s Liberation Army’s counteroffensive might completely rout United Nation forces. Eventually, however, the lines stabilized around what is now the Demilitarized Zone.

This failure had many fathers. While General Douglas MacArthur pushed most aggressively for a decisive offensive, he had many friends and supporters in Congress. President Truman made no effort to restrain MacArthur until the magnitude of the disaster became apparent. U.S. intelligence lacked a good understanding of either Chinese aims or Chinese capabilities. The invasion resulted in two more years of war, in which neither China, nor the United States could budge the other very far from the 38th parallel. It also poisoned U.S.-Chinese relations for a generation.

Disbanding the Iraqi Army: 

Pages