Maybe we love war so much because we tell ourselves that we’re good at it

After reading World War II at Sea: A Global History you won’t accept media reports of military success uncritically. Some examples:

The Americans, too, inflated their achievement in the Coral Sea. Headlines in the New York Times insisted that American bombers had sunk no fewer than seventeen Japanese warships, including “the certain destruction of two aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, and six destroyers.” The papers were initially silent, however, about American losses, reporting only that they were “comparatively light.” In fact, American losses in the Coral Sea were heavier than those of the Japanese, and the loss of the Lexington in particular, representing as it did one-quarter of the nation’s available strike force in the Pacific, was especially worrisome. At the moment, however, the public was hungry for good news, and the Navy Department did not discourage the national celebration.

The Battle of Savo Island was a humiliating defeat for the Allies. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, it was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy. It was so bad that, like the Japanese authorities after Midway, the American government kept the outcome an official secret. Based on the official navy briefings, the New York Times reported on August 18: “An attempt by Japanese warships to hamper our landing operations … was thwarted. The Japanese surface force was intercepted by our warships and compelled to retreat before it could take under fire our transports and cargo vessels.” While technically accurate, it was also deliberately misleading.

When there was an actual success to report, of course, the stories were more accurate (even then, however, missteps that wasted lives tended to be omitted).

Maybe we think that we’re great at war because our government and media tell us that things are going our way even when we’re losing?

See also the Vietnam War.

10 thoughts on “Maybe we love war so much because we tell ourselves that we’re good at it

  1. I do not think that US loves war. I think it is finding us, and when we do not fight, others shame us and bad things happen. I think that last attempt at peaceful democratic diplomacy (“Arab “”Spring””) was much more disastrous then war in Afghanistan, human loss and world stability – wise. It may be the largest anti-civilization act since WWI. I think that modern US armed forces are very competent, due to professionalism, training, specialization that is based on personnel that grew up in more or less free circumstances with access to arms, latest technology and equipment. US broke Japanese power on Pacific in six months and the war ended in Tokyo, not in Washington. In WWII, both Japan and Nazi Germany lacked enough pilots for their expansionist ambitious, not an issue in the USA.

    • The U.S. pretty clearly loves war, just look at Vietnam, Iraq War I, II, stoking endless violence in South America, no oversight drone attacks, the “War on Drugs”, and are by far the worlds largest arms exporter.

    • Bazza, Vietnam war and Iraq 1 are example of wars that US got into while helping other countries. Big mistake if not worse was stopping any aid by Democrats in US congress to South Vietnam after US military departed. USSR and Communist China’s military help to North Vietnam overwhelmed South Vietnamese allies and resulted in waves of refugees. Iraq 2 was over-reaction counterproductive to generic US goals in the region. Ayatollah’s Iran has been much bigger US adversary than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

  2. Jon Latimer’s 1812 War with America has startling (at least to me) passages about the US’s liking for war. How many countries in the world have planned to attack Canada with poison gas? At least one!

    ‘…as Richard A. Preston shows in The Defense of the Undefended Border, until 1940 anglophobia remained a central motivating factor in the United States, and Canada a target for conquest. Between the world wars the United States developed three major war plans: one against Japan, one against Mexico, and War Plan Red, against the United Kingdom. (Germany was colour-coded black, but there never was a War Plan Black.) In 1935 secret congressional hearings for air bases to launch surprise attacks on Canada, based on War Plan Red, were mistakenly published by the Government Printing Office and reported by the New York Times and the Toronto Globe.’

    ‘In October 1934 the secretaries [of War and the Navy] approved the strategic bombing of Halifax, Montreal, and Quebec City “on as large a scale as practicable.” A second amendment, also approved at cabinet level, directed the US Army to use poison gas from the outset as a supposedly “humanitarian” action that would cause Canada to surrender quickly, and thus save American lives.’

  3. Lord Palmerston, this does sound ridiculous. To US defense every army staff in the world has war plans which are in most cases live only on paper. And US only land borders are with Mexico and Canada and Britain is the only country that ever militarily invaded continental US, including from Canada (save for Pancho Villa bandits and confederates scheming to attack from Canada and use of Canada by US based mob during 1920th). And US based militia refused to invade Canada at the end of war of 1812, it should be in the book.

  4. Am I supposed to feel badly that we won World War II because we used propaganda and didn’t tell the whole truth every time we got pounded? I don’t. At least not any more. And I don’t love war, either. I’m glad Symonds talks about it as a scholar and in its historical context. That’s really wonderful and if anything it makes me even more humble and respectful of the enormous sacrifices that were made so I could be typing this silly reply to you today.

    This post is about two decades too late to get me all riled up about Manufacturing Consent and the military/industrial propaganda machine. Three decades ago, you might have met me in Baltimore on St. Paul street and we could have gone to town about it for hours and hours. Where are my Hüsker Dü tapes?

  5. I’d forgotten about this. I totally forgive everyone involved for understating the pounding we took when it was reported to the home front. That’s good.

    Until now I hadn’t read the details about the Battle of Savo Island, that’s how poorly educated I am. It’s no exaggeration to say that our loss was profound and devastating. In fact, if it had been the last naval battle in WWII, we would have lost the war, hands down. It was our first offensive campaign and we got trounced!

    The Impact of the Defeat at Savo

    The Savo Island naval battle had profound influences on the early and middle parts of the six-month American-run campaign to permanently secure a solid forward base for future offensive operations at Guadalcanal. It largely erased the headier effects of the massive, morale-restoring victory at Midway; it rendered the American surface navy timid, a timidity that all but starved the nascent Guadalcanal battle of food, troops, and weapons. It cast a pall on every aspect of the fighting well into October and probably forestalled a victory that could not be assured until halfway into November 1942.

    At a single stroke at Savo, a relatively small Imperial Navy surface battle force seized the initiative, gave the U.S. Navy its worst defeat, and set the terms for months of campaigning that involved all that the naval and air forces of both sides could bring to bear. By brilliantly guiding his operationally outnumbered cruisers to victories over tactically outnumbered Allied battle componants, Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa came as close to defeating the offensive war plans of the U.S. Navy as the Japanese carrier force had done at Pearl Harbor.

  6. It is true that battle of Savo made US admirals more careful but for Japanese their losses were critical due to imperial inability to restore destroyed assets, especially train new professional pilots. Battle of Savo did not put Japanese back into driving seat, they remained in defense and US Navy retained the initiative.

  7. See “Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group” by Daniel Ford. Among other things, it includes an analysis of the AVG’s claims of Japanese planes shot down versus the Japanese records of losses. Been years since I read it, but it may go the other way as well for Japanese claims.

  8. Please keep holding: your war is important to us. The only way to have it work out is to sacrifice the children of the advocates to the greatest patriotic war of our times.

    Children of the war hero John Kerry never had to clear up that (holy) mountain of the ISIS militants, and that’s why innumerable Yazidis died while their female folks were taken as sex slaves. He publicly lied that the US special forces surveyed the mountain and concluded it was safe because ISIS would certainly never come uphill. All of you who has a daughter, say Aye.

Comments are closed.