The American military is clearly the
most dominant force on the planet--maybe the most lethal ever.
nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines, a fleet of drones and a massive
army and air force, it would win in almost any circumstance--at least on paper.
But that has not always been the case, and sometimes not even being the best in
the world can crush a committed foe who will stop at nothing to win in combat.
So what were some of
America’s biggest military victories? What ranks as the worst losses? Below,
Dr. Robert Farley, in a series of two articles combined into one post for your
reading pleasure, gives us his picks.
Nations often linger
on their military defeats as long as, or longer than, they do on their
successes. The Battle of Kosovo remains the key event of the Serbian story, and
devastating military defeats adorn the national narratives of France, Russia
and the American South. What are the biggest disasters in American military
history, and what effect have they had on the United States?
----This Story Was
Originally Published in The National Interest----
In this article, I
concentrate on specific operational and strategic decisions, leaving aside
broader, grand-strategic judgments that may have led the United States into
ill-considered conflicts. The United States may well have erred politically in
engaging in the War of 1812, World War I , the Vietnam War  and Operation Iraqi
Freedom, but here I consider how specific failures worsened America’s military
and strategic position.
Invasion of Canada:
At the opening of the
War of 1812, U.S. forces invaded Upper and Lower Canada .
Americans expected a relatively easy going; the notion that Canada represented
the soft underbelly of the British empire had been popular among American
statesmen for some time. Civilian and military leaders alike expected a quick
capitulation, forced in part by the support of the local population. But
Americans overestimated their support among Canadians, overestimated their
military capabilities, and underestimated British power. Instead of an easy
victory, the British handed the Americans a devastating defeat.
(largely consisting of recently mobilized militias) prepared to invade Canada
on three axes of advance, but did not attack simultaneously and could not
support one another. American forces were inexperienced at fighting against a
professional army and lacked good logistics. This limited their ability to
concentrate forces against British weak points. The Americans also lacked a
good backup plan for the reverses that the British soon handed them. None of
the American commanders (led by William Hull, veteran of the Revolutionary War)
displayed any enthusiasm for the fight, or any willingness to take the risks
necessary to press advantages.
The real disaster of
the campaign became apparent at Detroit in August, when a combined British and
Native American army forced Hull to surrender, despite superior numbers. The
British followed up their victory by seizing and burning several American
frontier outposts, although they lacked the numbers and logistical tail to
probe very deeply into American territory. The other two prongs of the invasion
failed to march much beyond their jumping off points. American forces won
several notable successes later in the war, restoring their position along the
border, but never effectively threatened British Canada.
The failure of the
invasion turned what Americans had imagined as an easy, lucrative offensive war
into a defensive struggle. It dealt a major setback to the vision, cherished by
Americans, of a North America completely under the domination of the United States.
Britain would hold its position on the continent, eventually ensuring the
independence of Canada from Washington.
Battle of Antietam:
1862, Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland  with the
Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s objectives were to take advantage of foraging
opportunities (the movement of armies across Virginia had left the terrain
devastated), support a revolt in Maryland and potentially inflict a serious
defeat on Union forces. Unfortunately for Lee, information about his battle
disposition fell into the hands of General George McClellan, who moved to
intercept with the much larger Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln saw this
as an opportunity to either destroy or badly maul Lee’s army.
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.
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.
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,
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
Disbanding the Iraqi
On May 23, 2003, Paul
Bremer (chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority) ordered the
Iraqi Army to disband. It is difficult to overstate the unwise nature of this
decision. We don’t need hindsight; it was, as many recognized, a
terrible decision at the time. In a moment, swept aside was the entirety of
Iraqi military history, including the traditions and communal spirit of the
finest Iraqi military formations. Eradicated was the best means for managing
the sectors of Iraqi society most likely to engage in insurgent activity.
It’s not hard to see
the logic of the decision. The Iraqi Army was deeply implicated in the Baathist
power structure that had dominated Iraq for decades. Many of its officers had
committed war crimes, often against other Iraqis. It was heavily tilted towards
the Sunnis, with few Shia or Kurds in positions of responsibility. Finally, it
had, from the American perspective, a recent history of appallingly poor
military performance. As Bremer argued, it had largely dissolved in response to
the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
But this was not how
many Iraqis viewed the army. The Royal Iraqi Army had come into existence in
the early 1920s, when Iraq remained a protectorate of the British Empire. It
had revolted in 1941, but the British made the wise decision to keep the force
together so as to maintain order. In 1948, its units fought against Israeli
forces during the wars of Israeli independence, and it participated in the 1967
war, if briefly. In the 1980s, it waged an eight-year struggle against Iran.
While its legacy was complex, for many Iraqis, service in the Army (and in
particular its performance against Iran) remained a source of personal and
national pride. Eradicated was eighty years of institutional history.
It’s impossible to
say how the reconstruction of the Iraqi Army might have played out differently,
but then it’s difficult to imagine how it could have been worse. The Iraqi Army
has consistently failed in the most elementary of military tasks when not
directly supported by American forces. It remains unpopular in broad sectors of
Iraqi society, and its performance against lightly armed ISIS fighters has made
it the laughingstock of the region.
failures have undoubtedly had an impact on the country’s strategic position,
but have yet to fundamentally undercut national power. The United States
recovered quickly from Operation Drumbeat, Antietam, the disbanding of the
Iraqi Army and the defeat in Korea.
depends on more than simply victory in battle, as the persistence of U.S. power
suggests. Nevertheless, each of these avoidable defeats proved costly to the
United States—in blood, treasure and time.
Recommended for You
Is there an American
way of war? The question evokes deep controversy, not least because for a very
long time, Americans considered themselves an exceptionally peaceful nation.
Even into the twentieth century, American presidents boasted about the nation’s
aversion to war and defense expenditures.
But even during the
period in which the United States openly embraced pacifism, its military forces
won some remarkable victories. This article examines five great American
victories, spanning from 1780 until 1944. We’re looking for neither technically
impressive victories (although most of these are), nor predictable thrashings.
With one major exception, these battles did not turn on chance or on the need
for remarkable heroism (although such heroism was always present). Instead,
these successes came at the end of well-conceived and executed campaigns,
designed to integrate the elements of national power into a strategic victory.
We’re looking at how the United States built a series of advantages that led
inexorably to victory, even if the outcome sometimes remained in doubt until
the final play.
Battle of Yorktown:
The Battle of
Saratoga  decisively ended British attempts to subdue the
northern colonies. Although British forces remained in control of certain
critical areas (including especially New York City), the focus of British
attention turned south. British commanders hoped to rally loyalists, and
perhaps to fully detach the southern colonies from the rebellion. British
forces won several major victories, although colonial resistance continued and
the loyalist recruits never appeared in the anticipated numbers.
In early 1781, Lord
Charles Cornwallis led an invasion of Virginia, in an effort to cut off rebel
forces in the south from their sources of supply. Blundering, bad
communication, and poor command relationships on the British side led
Cornwallis to occupy Yorktown, while waiting for outside support. Yorktown was
defensible, but could also be easily cut off through the effective combination
of naval and ground power. Washington and Lafayette saw the opportunity for a
major victory, and moved quickly to take advantage. The French and the
colonials executed a series of moves that required exceedingly complex
planning, especially given the communications technology of the day.
The siege of Yorktown
began on September 28, 1781, and ended with Cornwallis’s surrender on October
19, after the Royal Navy failed to break through. Opponents of the war in the
British government quickly took advantage of Cornwallis’ defeat, and peace
negotiations soon ensued.
After Great Britain
failed to subdue the colonies in the North, some form of eventual independence
became extremely likely. The details of that independence, however, depended on
the military situation at the conclusion of the peace. The decisive victory of
the Continental Army at Yorktown meant that Britain could not prosecute the war
in the south with any hope of success, and that rebel recapture of other outposts
was just a matter of time.
Battle of Mexico
In the spring of
1846, the United States determined, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to
appropriate for itself a third of the territory of its only independent
neighbor in North America. The United States had recently annexed Texas, and
sought to acquire further territories in New Mexico and California.
Early U.S. operations
seized key points and won several major battles along the Texas-Mexico border
and in California, but Mexico refused to capitulate or negotiate, and Mexican
forces had sufficient maneuver space to avoid contact with major U.S.
formations. Consequently, success depended on forcing Mexico to accept a
political settlement by forcing its most powerful armies to defend it critical
The campaign to take
Mexico City began with an amphibious landing at Veracruz, In early March
1847, Winfield Scott  landed with a force of
12,000 men that included many of what would become the luminaries of the Civil
War. Scott’s army forced the surrender of the sizable Mexican garrison, and
then occupied the city. Scott judged Mexico City to be the center of gravity
for the Santa Ana government, and expected that the Mexicans would fight for
Scott was correct.
American forces marched west into Mexico’s interior, winning a bloody fight
against Santa Ana’s forces in the approaches to Puebla, before capturing the
city on May 1. By the beginning of August, Scott had occupied the high ground
around Mexico City. In early September, U.S. forces stormed the city, capturing
the Mexican capital. Although engagements continued for several months after
the conquest, Mexican forces never seriously threatened to evict Scott, and
Mexico eventually agreed to enormous territorial concessions.
While we might be
tempted to reflect on the justice of the war, there’s no question that victory
in the Mexican-American War fundamentally redrew the map of North America. The
United States acquired vast, thinly populated territories that extended all the
way to the Pacific, while Mexico lost nearly a third of its territory. It would
be some time before the United States could settle this territory (although
statehood for California came quickly), but in purely territorial terms it
represents one of the most successful wars of the nineteenth century.
Battle of Vicksburg:
The Battle of Vicksburg  was the
culmination of a six-month Union campaign to seize the most important remaining
Confederate fortress on the Mississippi. The great river system represented
both an important Confederate asset, and a serious vulnerability. Control of
the river allowed communication between the eastern and western Confederate
states, as well as easy north-south movement. In Union hands, however, the
river represented a highway into the bowels of the Confederacy.
The operation came
primarily under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, along with his
deputy, Major General William T. Sherman. Over a six-month period, Grant and
Sherman seized the initiative in the theater of operations, maneuvering and
fighting their way across swampy, inhospitable terrain. The operation was as
much a triumph of logistical planning and engineering as a victory of pure
arms, with the central Union challenge involving the safe transit of troops to
the vicinity of the city.
On May 18, 1863,
Grant trapped the out-maneuvered Confederates in Vicksburg itself. The siege of
Vicksburg lasted forty-six days, with the defenders (led by Lieutenant General
John C. Pemberton) surrendering on July 4.
Union control of the Mississippi, meaning that Union forces could prevent the
western Confederacy from supporting the east. It also confirmed the ascendance
of Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman to the senior ranks of Union
It left the
underbelly of the Confederacy open to attack by Union armies, and gave thousands
of slave the opportunity to make their way to Union lines. Lee recovered from
his defeat at Gettysburg, and the armies of the Confederacy remained viable for
two more years, especially in the east. Vicksburg, however, fatally undercut
the national unity of the Confederacy, and its ability to manage its own
Battle of Midway:
In the first six
months of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had accomplished nearly every
strategic task that it had set for itself. The IJN had facilitated the seizure
the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, Malaya and Singapore; it had destroyed the
major units of the Royal Navy in the Far East, and ranged deep into the Indian
Ocean; and it had devastated Dutch, Australian, American and British naval
strength at engagements from Pearl Harbor to Java Sea.
The most important
remaining task was the destruction of the carriers of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific
Fleet. The Pearl Harbor attack had damaged or destroyed most of the battleship
force, but the three carriers of the Pacific Fleet were on other missions.
These carriers would soon be supported by three more, although USS Lexington
was lost at the Battle of Coral Sea, which also damaged USS Yorktown and HIJMS
Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to attempt to draw out the USN by
invading Midway, a small island roughly equidistant between Japan and the
United States. If taken, Midway could provide a submarine base capable of
supporting attacks on U.S. shipping. The main objective, however, was the
destruction of the U.S. fleet.
Apprised of Japanese
movements because of code breaking, Nimitz decided to commit his remaining
carriers, including the battered USS Yorktown, despite the expected Japanese
superiority. Nimitz had two advantages. First, U.S. intelligence had a much
better command of Japanese dispositions than vice versa. The IJN expected the
American carriers to come out and play, but didn’t have a sense of when and
where they would attack. Second, the vast fleet of carriers, cruisers and
battleships rolling off American production lines gave Nimitz the luxury to
engage in risk acceptant behaviors.
The battle resulted
in a devastating American victory. Japan lost four fleet carriers to American
dive-bombers, and the Combined Fleet withdrew from Midway without attempting an
invasion. The USN lost only one carrier (USS Yorktown). Japan continued its offensive
in other areas, but the presumptive superiority of the IJN was broken. Japan
and the United States would shortly thereafter descend into the bitter slog of
Guadalcanal, a campaign of attrition that unavoidably favored the greater
resources of the United States.
Midway may not have
won the war; Japan continued to fight for three more years, and was probably at
the limit of its offensive sphere in any case. Still, it represented a key
inflection point of the Pacific War, squaring the score and giving the
initiative to the United States.
On June 6, 1944, the
United States and the United Kingdom led a coalition of Allied countries in the
invasion of German-controlled France. The operation, painstakingly planned for
months (and prepared for even longer) brought U.S. forces into direct conflict
with the Wehrmacht in decisive terms, allowing its defeat in the West and
facilitating the collapse of Nazi Germany.
Overlord was not a solely American operation , by
any standards. The United Kingdom  was an equal partner, and both
Canada and Poland made big contributions. Nevertheless, it represented a
culmination of the industrial, logistical and intellectual contributions of the
United States to the Western alliance, and was made possible by the unique
combination of American industrial and military might.
Overlord began in mid-1943. Over the next year, the United States and Great
Britain would accumulate a massive ground force in southern England, supported
by a huge tactical air force and a flotilla of warships and landing craft. When
the Allies struck across a broad front in Normandy, German defenders caused
significant casualties, but failed to turn back the attack.
Although the Germans
managed to keep the Allies hemmed in for about a month, American forces broke
out in late July. With forces able to maneuver in France, the Germans had no
hope of putting up an effective defense. In December 1944, the Wehrmacht
launched a surprise, last-ditch offensive against Allied forces in the Ardennes
forest. The offensive was intended to drive to the sea, splitting Allied forces
in two and forcing the Western Allies to come to terms with Nazi Germany.
Successful American resistance at Bastogne halted the German advance, ending
the last opportunity for Germany to affect the course of the war.
quintessentially modern, and success in modern warfare depends on much more
than deeds of heroic valor. Those deeds are undeniably part of victory, but
they require context; the ability to aggregate the tools of national power
behind a singular purpose.
Revolutionary War, the greatest American military successes have depended on
careful, long-range planning, the organization of assets and the commitment to
overwhelming the enemy. The American genius for war, to the extent that it
exists, lies in the ability to build advantage so that genius, heroism and
chance on the battlefield don’t need to play decisive roles. The tactical
battlefield is nothing like a chessboard, but the operational and strategic
fields sure are, and American commanders have proven to be exceedingly adept
----This Story Was
Originally Published in The National Interest----