Military incompetence is a common subject for popular history. Humans are nothing if not fallible, and studying our failures can be more illuminating than tired, propagandized tales of glorious victory. Hence well-received, engaging books like Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953), Russell Braddon’s The Siege (1970) or Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge Too Far (1974). It’s fascinating to watch the well-laid plans of generals and statesmen go disastrously wrong, whether through bad planning, personal mistakes or unforeseeable circumstances.
But curiously, serious systemic studies of the subject remain rare. Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) focuses solely on commanders’ personal defects, with little regard for broader context. James M. Perry’s Arrogant Armies (1996) provides chapter-length accounts of disasters (largely examples from 19th Century colonial wars) without overarching analysis of continuity between them. And Geoffrey Regan’s increasingly worthless books (Great Military Blunders, Naval Blunders, Air Force Blunders – presumably Coast Guard Blunders is next) reduce warfare to toilet-seat trivia, edible, easily digested and insubstantial.
And without sustained analysis, it’s easy to reduce military campaigns to such levels. It can be fun to read the story of a mutton-headed general for its own sake, the same way it can be fun to consume listicles about the world’s most disgusting soda flavors. But what do we actually learn by focusing so narrowly on a general’s tactical mistakes? It often lets statesmen off the hook for moronic diplomacy that set the war in motion in the first place. And in the case of colonial warfare, it minimizes the skill and agency of Zulus, Afghans and other indigenous people by reducing their defeats to the mere stupidity of colonialists.
Charles Fair’s From the Jaws of Victory (1971) proves an exception. Contemporary reviews regarded Jaws as a novelty, if not groundbreaking, for deviating from the Great Man/heroic battle template of military history. No less than Arthur Schlesinger praised it for “fasten[ing] on the factor most neglected by conventional historians – i.e., stupidity.” It’s not the subject’s definitive treatment: it’s popular history by an amateur, relying on secondary sources and driven by polemical anger rather than academic detachment – some specialists will likely have conniptions over of his approach. But it’s definitely the most entertaining.
Fair certainly wasn’t an academic. A contemporary profile pegs him as “an unsuccessful Yale student, an unsuccessful playwright and writer, a twice unsuccessful husband but pretty good jazz piano player.” His other books are psychological or sociological works like The Dying Self (1969) and The New Nonsense (1974) which critique troubling trends in modern society, such as loss of personality and the increasing acceptance of pseudoscience. By Fair’s admission, frustration with the Vietnam War inspired him to write Jaws: “We learned so little from our recent past… I wanted to make people think.”
Fair examines trends characterizing warfare throughout the ages. First there’s the deadly mixture of pride and stubbornness, “a dull man’s substitute for resolution” (262). Hence Ulysses Grant’s ruthless attrition during the American Civil War’s Overland Campaign, burning through 60,000 casualties in two months. Or Winston Churchill championing the First World War’s Gallipoli Campaign long after it became an irretrievable failure. Hence also America’s disastrous intervention in Vietnam, perpetrating a losing war beyond reason (more recent American misadventures will undoubtedly strike the modern reader). The inability to admit mistakes proves more destructive than the original error.
Such obtuseness extends to tactics and technology. Fair deconstructs medieval chivalry, an inadequate military code that pitted “the brave versus the effectual.” At Crecy in the Hundred Years’ War, the reckless gallantry of French knights proved no match for English longbowmen. He similarly recounts how Swiss pike formations terrorized continental armies, defeating rulers like Charles the Bold who relied on courage over commonsense. Conversely, firearms and artillery rendered both of these formations obsolete within a few decades. One scarcely need rehash what excessive tactical conservatism wrought in World War I.
But Fair’s style (elegant, incisive and damning) works best when he’s examining individual figures. Fair starts with Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s wealthiest man, Spartacus’s nemesis and all-around military nincompoop. Fair views Crassus as an easily recognizable type, the megalomaniac whose ambitions outraced his abilities (pp. 27-28):
The Rome in which he grew up was a disintegrating republic… On the whole he met the challenge of his age with phenomenal success. It was just that circumstances, added to his intense natural competitiveness, drove him to undertake too much…Win, lose, or draw, he was Somebody. History took note of him.
The proverbially wealthy, preternaturally ambitious Crassus proved unsatisfied by mere power. He backed Sulla’s violent dictatorship, surviving the fallout after Sulla’s demise and emerging as Rome’s wealthiest man. But during the Third Servile War, even though Crassus did the lion’s share of the work destroying Spartacus’s formidable host, his rival Pompey earned more attention by annihilating a regard column of the slave army. Even as one of Rome’s Triumvirate, Crassus played second fiddle to Caesar and Pompey. Everywhere
After winning appointment as Governor of Syria, Crassus decided to gild his reputation through a war with the Parthians. But his campaign against Parthia masked more grandiose ambitions (p. 33-34):
[The Parthians] were thus not only beyond Roman power but powerful enough themselves to be a perennial threat and a nuisance. Crassus decided that he would settle the Parthian question… It led on, as though already a fait accompli, to still grander projects. [quoting Plutarch] “Being strangely puffed up.. he would not limit his fortune… but… proposed to… pass as far as Bactria and India and the utmost ocean.”
Crassus conducted his “war of choice” with marked stupidity. Declining passage through Armenia, he instead marched his armies through Mesopotamia’s hostile desert. He trusted an Arab chieftain of dubious loyalty who misled him further. When the Parthians struck at Carrhae (May 6th, 55 BC), Crassus proved hopelessly outclassed by their mobile tactics and skilled archers. The Romans were annihilated, Crassus murdered during a parlay with enemy leaders (a possibly apocryphal story claims that the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat to mock his greed). Afterwards, Fair notes, “the Romans… knew a morass when they saw it and seldom thereafter ventured into this one” (42).
Somewhat overstating things, Fair views Crassus as the forbearer of megalomaniacs contemplating world conquest: Philip II of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, each of whom receive analysis in later chapters. “As a statesman [Crassus] forecast those of today who, having adopted nonsensical policies, refuse under any circumstances to give them up” (42). Yet at least Crassus, in his own curious way, possessed brutal honesty. Philip cloaked his ambitions in religious piety; Bonaparte and Hitler, abstractions of ideology, race and nation. Crassus, at least, professed no cause but his own.
Fair’s most compelling chapter concerns Charles XII of Sweden, whose conduct of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) ended Sweden’s reign as a world power. Drawing on Frans Bengtsson’s biography The Sword Does Not Jest (1960), Fair contrasts Charles with his Russian nemesis Peter the Great. Tactically Charles was a better general, winning every battle but his last. But in his obsession with military conquest, he was the lesser sovereign (p. 183):
Like Edward III [of England] he had little time, and possibly no liking, for administrative matters, leaving those to his slow-moving, elderly ministers in Stockholm and showing few signs in his long, busy career that he understood the world which was growing around him – one in which numbers, wealth and strategic position were to be everything and questions of honor and dynastic policy utterly forgotten.
To modern eyes, Charles seems tragically anachronistic in both his goals and personality. Certainly he possessed a medieval style: pious religiosity, glory in warfare, leading from the front. But he also showed a tactical brilliance that, time and again, overcame seemingly impossible odds. In his signature victory at Narva (November 19th, 1700), Charles bested a Russian force that possessed four-to-one superiority. His courage and remarkable tactical flexibility generated victory after victory over his poorly-organized and badly-led opposition.
Yet Fair depicts Charles as lacking a vision for lasting success. His campaigns bogged down in sideshows, like a two-year civil war in Poland that allowed Russia time to regroup its forces. Charles failed repeatedly to land a knockout blow against Peter, whose seemingly inexhaustible reserves allowed him to absorb massive casualties. In contrast, the Swedish army “was…worn down and chipped away” by endless campaigning (168). Charles was a gambler playing against heavy odds; at Poltava (July 8th, 1709) in the modern Ukraine, his luck ran out.
In his final campaign Charles invaded Russia in the winter, with predictable results; he lost 12,000 of his 32,000-man army before coming to grips with Peter. Renewing his campaign in spring, Charles found himself low on supplies and deep in hostile territory. Worse, wounded in a preliminary skirmish he deferred to less able subordinates Lewenhaupt and Rehnskold. Poor coordination among his columns squandered initial Swedish success, allowing the Russians to crush the Swedes in detail. Facing overwhelming numbers and firepower, Charles’ army was destroyed.
Fair chastises Charles for subordinating the basic needs of state to military glory. Unlike Napoleon’s return from exile, his return from exile in Turkey brought little enthusiasm among Swedes for further campaigns. Instead Charles died in a desultory conflict with Norway, his achievements dying with him. Within a few years Sweden’s empire collapsed, reducing that nation to a second-rate power. And Russia, under Peter’s erratic but farsighted leadership, emerged as Eastern Europe’s unquestioned master. Writes Fair (p. 183):
The Tsar’s acts and preoccupations were of far greater scope, most of them converging on a common aim and a surprising number of them yielding substantial results… He still fell short of bad generalship in one essential – he did not kill people for absolutely nothing. In the end, Charles did.
From tragedy to farce, Fair moves to Ambrose Burnside. America’s Civil War generated scores of terrible generals. Its peculiar nature, a sectional conflict with mostly-volunteer armies, propelled wire-pulling amateurs (Benjamin Butler), well-connected incompetents (Braxton Bragg) and inexperienced nullities (Irvin McDowell) to unmerited positions. Even among this dismal crowd Burnside stands out, and not just for his legendary facial hair.
In Fair’s hands, Burnside becomes the patron saint of bad generals. A corps commander at Antietam (September 17th, 1862), his dilatory assault on the Rohrbach Bridge cost the Union a decisive victory against Robert E. Lee. Soon after, he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac after George McClellan’s dismissal, despite admitting his own shortcomings. Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862) proved Burnside right: Burnside lost 12,000 men in 14 successive assaults against Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights, in the war’s singlemost lopsided battle.
Reduced to corps command, Burnside topped himself with the Battle of the Crater (July 30th, 1864), an extraordinary incident during Grant’s Siege of Petersburg. Burnside implemented a subordinate’s plan to explode a mine under the Confederate lines. This promising idea became doomed from the start: commanders Grant and Meade argued over tactical details, while Burnside selected the attack’s lead division (led by a whiskey-swilling incompetent named James Ledlie, who spent the battle in a shelter) by drawing straws! With such paltry preparation, disaster became inevitable (287):
“No one, it appears, had thought to train the assault troops to climb out quickly over their own works… As a result the attack was slow in getting under way and the men lost formation almost at once… By the time the Southerners had recovered from their shock… they found themselves not under flank attack but looking down into an immense hole in the earth full to its upper slopes with black and white soldiers struggling back and forth in wild disorder. Such an opportunity for massacre… was seldom given the Confederates… They opened up with every cannon and musket that could be brought within range.”
Burnside’s defenders (like biographer William Marvel, whose book is a masterpiece of special pleading) can point to two modest successes: his amphibious 1862 campaign against North Carolina’s Outer Banks and defending Knoxville from James Longstreet’s Confederates in November 1863. But even these achievements weren’t especially impressive. At New Bern, Burnside conducted a rash frontal assault without reserves, without properly surveying the terrain or enemy lines: “Had his first rush failed he would have been in grave trouble” (248). Burnside’s bullheadedness worked against undermanned Carolina garrisons. The Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t so accommodating.
How did Burnside, affable but utterly incompetent, keep rising to positions of authority? After the war, Burnside parlayed his checkered service into a successful political career, serving several terms as Governor of Rhode Island. Fair suggests that Burnside’s very mediocrity was his greatest asset; it mattered more that he looked a soldier than showing actual ability (p. 270):
The man who is by temperament and physique close to the going tribal norms tends to rise no matter how stupid he is… Burnside… was a sort of Victorian beau ideal, looking the photographs of many of our own grandfathers… It is such as he who do most of the world’s important business, and sheer good luck for the rest of us when the same men happen to be reasonably intelligence. They represent… a… New Feudalism whose aristocracy, while more fluid than the old, is fully as biological in principle.
Fair provides consistently excellent vignettes throughout the book. His broader analysis is more scattershot, ranging from incisive to flawed and hazy. He notes a continuity of errors and “types” throughout history, but only fleetingly notes how leaders overcome them or how specific circumstances effect military mindsets. He shows little interest in colonial conflicts, where brute force often did triumph despite incompetence and bad policy (and whose connection with the Vietnam War is more evident). Fair shows stupidity in the context of great power conflicts, missing opportunity for stronger analogies with modern events.
At his worst, Fair trades analysis for invective. He deems Napoleon a bad general with good press, stressing his parallels with Charles XII as a tactical prodigy . But Napoleon lost many battles before Waterloo, while his political and cultural legacy (much of it constructive) easily eclipses Charles’ ephemeral accomplishments. Fair gets equally carried away on World War I, denouncing idiotic fictional generals in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Reading his (not-unjustified) vitriol towards Douglas Haig, one’s not surprised to find Alan Clark’s dubious The Donkeys as his source.
Unsurprisingly then, Fair’s final chapter on Vietnam proves his weakest. Naturally Fair attempts to apply lessons from his war to this modern conflict, especially imperial overreach and inflexibility. But these lessons apply only up to a point. As an asymmetrical conflict, it’s hard to compare Vietnam to his other subjects, where technology, brute force and “realism” typically won. Likewise, comparing Lyndon Johnson’s modest (though certainly destructive) ambitions of “containing” Indochinese Communism to Philip II’s hegemonic fantasies is absurd, even if the hubris and pointless destruction wrought by their delusions of grandeur invites parallels.
One concedes these analytical flaws, but Fair’s broader point remains. His subjects destroyed their own nations, or at least caused thousands – even millions – of deaths. Fair perversely concludes that “we need such men” (416) to remind us the cost of misguided policy and needless war – a lesson modern statesmen, from Bush to Putin, neglect at their own peril. It’s a powerful conclusion to a formidable book.