Defeated, Grant Advances: May 7, 1864

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, respectively, opposing commanders in the Overland Campaign.

Beginning with Irvin McDowell, the Union general who lost the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), and continuing with George B. McClellan (“The Young Napoleon”), John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker (“Fighting Joe”), and Henry Wager Halleck (“Old Brains”), the Union’s top generals were all West Point graduates and as highly qualified as it was possible to be in the nineteenth-century American military. Yet, to a man, they produced disappointing, often heartbreaking results on the field of battle. Even George Meade, under whose command the Army of the Potomac won the turning-point Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), let Lincoln and the Union down by failing to pursue the defeated Army of Northern Virginia in its withdrawal back to Confederate ground.

In contrast to varying degrees of failure in the Eastern Theater of the war, one general in the Western Theater was producing some remarkable results. He was Ulysses S. Grant.

For too long, hardly anybody paid attention. Halleck, his commanding officer in the Western Theater, was uncomfortable with Grant’s relentlessly aggressive spirit. Halleck favored a strategy of protecting territory over killing the enemy, disdained Grant’s personal appearance as insufficiently military, and was quick to give credence to unsubstantiated rumors of drunkenness. For his part and in contrast to Halleck, Grant was resolutely apolitical, which meant that he lacked the connections that advanced many other less-deserving officers.

But the most formidable obstacle to Grant’s advancement was the very theater in which he achieved his successes. All eyes were on the Eastern Theater, especially Virginia. What happened in the vicinity of the Mississippi typically elicited from public and politicians little more than a nod. The one exception was Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862). While that battle ended in an important strategic victory for the Union, opening up an advance into northern Mississippi, its cost in casualties was unprecedented: more than 13,000 Union soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing—about one in five of the men who fought. From among a horrified public came demands that the president fire Grant. To these Lincoln responded that he needed Grant, needed him because “he fights.” While the Northern press pointed to a 20 percent casualty rate among Union forces at Shiloh, Lincoln noted a nearly 26 percent rate among the Confederates. While the likes of McClellan and Halleck viewed strategy in the Napoleonic terms of controlling territory, Grant was killing the enemy army. Grant understood that the Union North not only possessed a stronger economy and much greater industrial capacity than the Confederate South, it also had many more people: 23 million versus 9 million in the South, of which 3.5 million were slaves. The North could make good its manpower losses. The South could not.

Still, it was not until March 9, 1864 that President Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general—making him the highest-ranking officer in the US Army—and then appointed him chief of all Union land forces. Up to this time, Lincoln had been replacing one general after another, vainly searching for the right combination of fighting spirit and strategic skill. In Grant, he finally found a military leader not with a little more of this or that, but with an entirely new approach to the war. Under Grant, the Union armies would have a single aim: destroy the Confederate armies. Yes, Grant would still attack major Southern cities, but less to simply occupy them than to deprive the Confederate army of its ability to furnish transportation and supplies. And, yes, he would resume the advance against Richmond, but less for the purpose of claiming the Confederate capital than with the objective of continually forcing Robert E. Lee to defend it and, in the process, sacrifice men he could not afford to lose.

By the time Grant was given the North’s top military job, only two major Confederate armies remained on the field: the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, and the Army of Tennessee, under the command of Joseph E. Johnston. Kill these two armies, and the war would end. Grant had on hand two major instruments of their destruction. The first was the Army of the Potomac, and the second the Military Division of the Mississippi.

Before becoming the Union’s general in chief, Grant held command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, having stepped up to the post from command the Army of the Tennessee. (Like most Union armies, it was named after the nearest river and is not to be confused with the Confederate Army of Tennessee, which, like most Confederate armies, was named after a state or region.) When he left to take command of the Division, William Tecumseh Sherman succeeded him as commanding general of the Army of the Tennessee. With Grant’s appointment to the top Union command, Sherman then ascended to command of the Military Division of the Mississippi, whose main field armies were the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Ohio, and the Army of the Cumberland.

Sherman was every bit as aggressive as Grant, and, like him, possessed a keen faculty for cutting to the very heart of a problem. While Grant would use the Army of the Potomac, nominally commanded by George Meade, for the march against Richmond—all the while forcing repeated combat on Lee—Sherman summed up his mission in a single sentence: “I was to go for Joe Johnston.” While Grant ate away at the Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman was to destroy the Army of Tennessee. As Grant fought his way toward Richmond, Sherman would follow the tracks of the Western and Atlantic Railroad to take Atlanta. Seizing this would deprive the Confederacy of its chief transportation hub, and it would certainly force Johnston to fight.

On May 4, 1864, Grant and Meade, with roughly 120,000 men of the Army of the Potomac, crossed the Rapidan River. This script had been followed before, early in the war, by George Brinton McClellan. Unlike him, however, Grant was not plagued by a morbid fear of being outnumbered. He had accurate intelligence, which told him that Lee could no longer field more than 65,000 men. A warrior at heart, Grant was confident in his ability to defeat Lee, whom he outnumbered nearly two to one. His intention, moreover, was to choose the battle ground. He wanted to force Lee into the open, to expose the Army of Northern Virginia and to give the Army of the Potomac vast room for maneuver and its artillery clear fields of fire. The superiority of Union artillery was one of the North’s great advantages over the military of the depleted Confederacy.

Grant, to be sure, was not McClellan. But Lee was still Lee—a superb tactician when he was at his best and, even more, a commander committed to ceding nothing. He immediately understood that Grant meant to manipulate him into a position that favored the Union. Lee refused to be pushed. With numerically inferior forces and confronted by an invading army, a conventional commander would have dug in to make a stand in a static defense. Lee instead went on the attack, hurling his outnumbered army against the approaching columns. He hit Grant not out in the open, where the Union commander wanted to fight and where his artillery could be brought to bear, but in the dense forest known locally as the “Wilderness.” It was not a virgin battlespace. Almost a year to the day earlier, Lee had dealt Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac a massive defeat here at the conclusion of the Battle of Chancellorsville (Aril 30-May 6, 1863).

The tangled woods and undergrowth were allies for the outnumbered, outgunned Lee. Grant could not use his cavalry on this ground, and artillery was all but useless. The Confederate commander had enlisted nature itself to even the long odds against him as the fighting began on May 5. Grant turned over the tactical management of the battle to Meade. It was behavior typical of a humble and selfless commander. Noble—but, in this case, a mistake. The conventionally competent Meade was thoroughly out-generaled by Lee. Not that fighting in the Wilderness was easy for the Army of Northern Virginia. Confusion, in fact, gripped both sides, and while the combat on May 5 was horrific, it was also non-decisive, necessitating another day of battle.

On May 6, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet led his corps in an envelopment of Meade’s inadequately deployed troops. In a brilliant move, Longstreet drove one flank of the Army of the Potomac into the other, creating a potentially catastrophic situation that prompted Grant to belatedly usurp Meade’s command prerogative by ordering him to make a fighting retreat. Nothing, not even the commencement of an attack, is more intense and desperate than a fighting withdrawal. In this case, the musket fire was so fierce that the surrounding woods and brush soon caught flame. Within a short time, entire tracts of the Wilderness were engulfed, and it is believed that as many as two hundred men, both Confederate and Union, either perished in the flames or were asphyxiated by smoke during the hellish night of May 7–8.

The butcher’s bill for two days of battle was 17,666 killed, wounded, captured, or missing out of an engaged force of 101,895 soldiers in the Army of the Potomac—a 17 percent casualty rate that included the deaths of two generals, the wounding of two more, and the capture of another two. Less accurately recorded were Confederate losses, but it is estimated that out of 61,025 troops engaged, 11,125 were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. It was an 18 percent casualty rate, and it included three generals killed and four (among them Longstreet) wounded.

Grant, having lost more men than Lee, was forced to disengage from the battle. In this sense, he suffered defeat. But, in proportion to the number of men fielded, Lee fared even worse, yet he held his ground. It was not the way Grant wanted to begin his grand offensive. But it was also true that he could afford to lose men whereas Lee certainly could not. In any case, whether he should be judged defeated or marginally victorious, Grant behaved nothing like a beaten general. Instead of withdrawing, he advanced. Having disengaged from Lee, he side-stepped the position held by the Army of Northern Virginia and continued south to a courthouse at a Virginia crossroads town called Spotsylvania Court House. One of the roads crossing here led straight to Richmond. Far from avoiding further battle, Grant invited it—for all practical purposes demanded it. Win, lose, or draw, he intended to kill more of Lee’s army.

For his part, Lee saw that his men were in high spirits. For all the blood they had shed, they felt that they had won—as, by the raw numbers, they had. Anticipating Grant’s destination, Lee drove his army to beat him in Spotsylvania. Elements of Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry and I Corps commanded by Richard H. Anderson (substituting for Longstreet, who was recovering from his wounds) clashed with the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps under Major General Gouverneur K. Warren on May 8. The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House began as a skirmish, but Lee intended to fight on this spot the showdown battle of the Civil War. His aim was to exact a toll on Grant so terrible that the Northern electorate would not return Lincoln to the White House in the General Election of November 1864. His Democratic opponent—most believed it would be none other than George B. McClellan—would favor an immediate negotiated end to the war. That was the best the Confederacy could hope for, and, as Lee saw it, it was worth spilling blood for now.

A determined Lee initiated some of the most desperate fighting in a war that had been far more desperate than anyone could have imagined. He saw this engagement as quite possibly the last chance for the Confederacy. As for Grant, he deliberately avoided the behavior of a conventional commander. Instead of taking a stand or withdrawing, he did what virtually no commander would do under heavy attack. He maneuvered, repeatedly shifting his main line to his own left while continually counterpunching Lee, continually probing for a weak spot in the enemy flank. Lee was having none of it. Observing the action closely, he was always able to cover any portion of his flank that became exposed. His troops worked furiously to dig out of the Virginia clay a hasty defense. In some places, this consisted of shallow but serviceable trenches. In others, it was no more than a collection of holes, each dug by an individual soldier for his own protection. Elsewhere, a few men scraped out rifle pits, larger “firing holes” capable of accommodating several men. From their cover, crude as it might be, the Confederates took a terrible toll—yet Grant continued to sidestep, each time threatening to come around on Lee’s exposed flank. And, each time, Lee was forced to extend an already undermanned defensive line. This meant more digging and more exhausting labor, while also spreading the entire line thinner and thinner.

The old rules of warfare, the Napoleonic rules, the rules taught at West Point by men like Old Brains Halleck dictated that whichever side could concentrate the most fire on the enemy would prevail. These old rules called for taking a stand and firing on the enemy until the enemy gave up. Grant broke those rules by combining attack with maneuver. He refused to simply mass against some particular point in Lee’s line. Instead, he attacked and then sidestepped, threatening Lee’s flank and thereby forcing him to keep extending his line, which thereby became thinner. Who would lose? The general whose line was the first to snap.

Grant needed to find an edge in this blood-soaked contest of endurance. He had earlier pressured Meade into installing Philip Sheridan to command the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac; however, Meade and Sheridan immediately came into conflict over the proper role of the cavalry. Sheridan wanted to use it offensively, as a means of conducting hit-and-run raids, whereas the conservative Meade insisted on reserving the cavalry mainly for traditional reconnaissance missions. Now locked in desperate combat at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant threw his weight behind Sheridan’s proposal to lead the 10,000-man Cavalry Corps in a breakout toward Richmond. When Meade objected, Grant simply overruled him. Stuart’s cavalry consisted of 4,500 troopers versus Sheridan’s 10,000. Grant believed that menacing Richmond would force the outnumbered Stuart to fight and to lose. When Stuart was beaten, a gap would open up in the lines around Richmond, and then Lee would have no choice but to break off the battle at Spotsylvania Court House, withdraw closer to the capital, and thereby allow an additional Union advance.

Sheridan considered the size of the Army of the Potomac Cavalry Corps to be a great asset, but he soon discovered that it was also a liability, since it made it impossible for him to mask its movement from Jeb Stuart’s prying eyes. Seeing the approach—riding four abreast, the Union cavalry column extended about thirteen miles—Stuart decided to ambush Sheridan at Yellow Tavern, an abandoned inn six miles north of Richmond. He deployed his troopers in strong defensive positions, and he motivated them by explaining that they—and they alone—were all that stood between Grant and the capital city of their Confederacy.

Sheridan’s men rode into the trap—though it was sprung only on the leading edge of the Union column. The Battle of Yellow Tavern (May 11, 1864) raged for three hours before Sheridan pulled back, but not before one of his troopers shot Jeb Stuart, who died two days later. As with the loss of Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire at the Battle of Chancellorsville a year earlier (wounded on May 2, he died on May 10, 1863), the death of Stuart was a blow from which there could be no recovery. Like Jackson, Stuart was irreplaceable.

In the meantime, Grant repeatedly struck at Lee’s flank, only to be repulsed each time. At last, however, he was convinced he had found a vulnerability. He ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and 20,000 men to engage Ewell’s Corps. The Confederate general had deployed his line in a salient—entrenchments bulging toward the Union lines in a pattern that gave the rebels a 180-degree field of fire. To Hancock’s men, it resembled an upside-down “U,” which they called Mule Shoe. By the end of May 12, Mule Shoe would acquire a new name: Bloody Angle.

Hancock was one of the most admired officers in the Union army. At Gettysburg, he was among the most aggressive commanders, and, as Grant expected him to do on May 12, he pushed everything he had against Mule Shoe. Beginning well before dawn, at 4:30 in the morning, Hancock began punching through Ewell’s line, breaching several places by five. Ewell, however, was not one given to panic. He sent every man he could to plug the breaches and, before noon, had managed to halt Hancock’s advance.

At this point, the manner of the fighting changed. It was no longer something out of the industrial mid-nineteenth century—massed musket fire. It was primitive, hand-to-hand, the men fighting with fists or, grasping their muskets by the barrel, using the butt as a club. Grant’s own aide-de-camp, Horace Porter, reported seeing “opposing flags … thrust against each other, and muskets … fired with muzzle against muzzle.” He spoke of men ramming their swords and their bayonets “between the logs in the parapet which separated the combatants” blindly stabbing at the enemy. By day’s end, a torrential rain began, but the fighting continued. Even darkness, which usually brought an intermission in battle, did not stop what Porter called “the fierce contest, and the deadly strife did not cease till after midnight.”

Lee saw the Bloody Angle as the battle’s crisis and, ignoring the entreaties of his officers and men, rode down to it, intending to command its defense in person. The men at the front threatened to mutiny if Lee, so important to them, refused to withdraw. At length, he did. Inspired nevertheless, his soldiers finally managed to beat back Hancock’s assault, and thus the action at the Bloody Angle came to an end.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House would not end until nine days later—and then inconclusively. As before, Grant refused to withdraw. As before, he would side-slip his men and edged them closer to Richmond. On May 11, he telegraphed the War Department in Washington that he had suffered heavy losses. Eventually, these would be tallied as 18,399 killed, wounded, captured, or missing—a casualty rate of nearly 18 percent. In raw numbers, Confederate losses were 12,687 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. But this was out of a strength half that of the Army of the Potomac and amounted to a casualty rate of 23 percent. Grant concluded his telegram by declaring, “I … propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.”

His next major move came on May 31. Mindful of what it had cost when Lee beat him to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House, he was determined to reach the next crossroads, Cold Harbor, before him. Because it was a mere half-dozen miles northeast of Richmond, Grant was certain Lee would do battle here. Yet again, however, Lee outguessed his opponent. When Grant arrived at Cold Harbor, Lee was waiting for him. The battle commenced on May 31, reached its height on June 2, and then petered out through June 12. This time, it ended in a frank defeat for the Army of the Potomac, which suffered nearly 13,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) to about 5,300 for the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant responded to this truly terrible defeat by continuing his advance despite a renewed public outcry in the North for his removal. Under his command in the Overland Campaign, 50,000 Union soldiers had been killed, wounded, captured, or had simply gone missing. This was 41 percent of the force (continually replenished) with which he had begun the campaign. Lincoln agreed with the public, including those who called for Grant’s dismissal. These losses were indeed unthinkable. But then he pointed out that the losses among the Army of Northern Virginia amounted to 46 percent. The Army of the Potomac could be restored to its full strength. The Army of Northern Virginia could not. Robert E. Lee was losing the war.

And so Grant once again slipped his army out of Cold Harbor, doing so this time by night, and crossing the Chickahominy. Lee watched. Lee knew what it meant. Grant was continuing on to Richmond. The Confederate commander realized that, short of surrender, he had no choice but to fight again. He did not believe Grant would ever quit. His only hope was that the people of the North would elect a new president, come November, who would quit—right out from under their general. But, right now, under Lincoln, Grant would not turn back. He would fight again. There was no question about that, Lee knew. The only question Lee must have asked himself was whether the Army of Northern Virginia could possibly last to November.



British PM Winston Churchill sporting top hat with coat and scarf as he holds up veed fingers.

In its immediate aftermath it was difficult to measure the colossal extent of what had happened. Only one clear and unambiguous good was at once visible, the overthrow of the Nazi regime, and the delivery of Europe from an appalling terror. No regime so systematically vile had ever before dominated so much of the civilized world. As the Allied armies advanced into Europe, the deepest evils of a system of terror and torture were revealed by the opening of the prison camps and the revelations of what went on in them. It was suddenly apparent that Churchill had spoken to no more than the bare truth when he told his countrymen in 1940 that ‘if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science’. The reality of this danger could be seen at once at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, the sites of the first two camps of victims of the regime to provide horrifying films of the Nazis’ treatment of their prisoners. They were soon being shown in the cinemas of the victors, and awoke strong feelings against Germans. As more horrors were uncovered, distinctions ceased to be meaningful between the degrees of cruelty inflicted on political prisoners, on slave labourers from other countries (of whom millions had been brought to work in German factories or on military construction projects like the ‘West Wall’ fortification of the French coast), or on some of Germany’s prisoners of war. Even all these, though, were eclipsed as the evidence became available of a systematic Nazi attempt to wipe out European Jewry in a so-called ‘Final Solution’ of an irrational problem: the pursuit of racial purity.

The ultimate origins of what came to be called the ‘Holocaust’ lay back well before 1901, in deep-rooted antisemitism, crackpot theories about international Jewish conspiracy, mistaken eugenic ideas. After 1933, inadequate men and women and even psychopaths were easily found to be enlisted for official persecution of the Jews, a sinister enough piece of evidence about Nazi society, but many ordinary Germans were, sometimes from fear, sometimes from indifference, also willing to go along passively with what they knew and saw of persecution and, later, of extermination policy. The notion that Germany might actually itself be cleansed of Jews had surfaced (in the offices of the Nazi security service) as a practical proposition as early as 1934, but the exact process by which it developed into a scheme for total extermination was complicated, cloaked in secrecy, and is still debated. In it, the Nazi élite, the SS organization, played a major part. The outcome was a transformation of the demographic map. Overall, though complete figures may never be available, it is probable that between 5 and 6 million Jews were killed, whether in the gas-chambers and crematoria of the extermination camps, by shootings and extermination on the spot in east and south-east Europe, or by overwork and hunger. Polish Jews were almost wiped out, and Dutch Jews, too, suffered terribly in proportion to their numbers. But distinctions at such a level of atrocity hardly mean much.

No nation had engaged in the war because it saw it as a struggle against such wickedness, though no doubt many people were heartened as it went on by the sense (assisted by intelligent propaganda) that the conflict had a moral dimension. Even while Great Britain was the only nation in Europe still on her feet and fighting for her survival, many of her people had sought and had begun to see in the struggle positive ends going beyond mere survival and even beyond the destruction of Nazism. Hopes of a new world of good relations between great powers and of social and economic reconstruction were embodied in the Atlantic Charter and the organization of the United Nations for peaceful cooperation. They were encouraged by sentimental but wholly understandable goodwill and gratitude towards allies and a tragic blurring of differences of interest and social ideals that would re-emerge only too quickly when fighting ended. Much wartime rhetoric then boomeranged badly; disillusionment often followed inspection of the world soon after the guns were silent. Yet for all this, the war of 1939–45 in Europe remains a moral struggle in a way, perhaps, in which no other great war has ever been and without any of the combatant governments intending it to be when they entered it (except, pervertedly, the German). It is important never to forget this. Too much has been heard of the regrettable consequences of Allied victory; it also brought to an end the worst challenge to liberal civilization and human goodness that has ever arisen.

There was a deep irony in that. Germany had for so long been one of the most progressive countries in Europe, the embodiment of much that was best in its culture. Germany was a major contributor to the civilization which had gone round and, indeed, had made, the modern world. That she should fall prey to collective derangement on the scale implied by the Holocaust (to say nothing of other atrocities) suggested something rotten at the root of that civilization itself. The crimes of Nazism had been carried out not in a fit of barbaric intoxication with conquest, but in a systematic, scientific, controlled, bureaucratic (though often inefficient) way about which there was little that was irrational except the appalling end that it sought and the lunatic mythologies which fed it. In this respect the Asian war was different, for all its brutalities. Japanese imperialism replaced the old western imperialisms for a time, but the subject peoples did not always wholly regret the change, even if they were often ruthlessly exploited and cruelly treated. Allied propaganda during the war attempted to give currency to the notion of a ‘fascist’ Japan, but this was a distortion of so traditional a society’s character. When all the atrocities of Japanese occupation have been weighed, it remains hard to believe that such appalling consequences as faced European nations under German rule were in Asia bound to follow a Japanese victory.

Glib comparisons are, of course, useless and perhaps dangerous. When we say that Nazi behaviour in Europe and the Holocaust were ‘worse’ than earlier atrocities, and that therefore the men who carried them out were ‘worse’ than the villains of the past, we speak truly, but must be clear about what that means. It is not just a matter of the scale and intensity of brutality and destructiveness made possible by the capacities of industrial societies. Great atrocities have taken place in the past whose precise extent we can never measure, and the subjective and relative impact of which we cannot imagine, because the mental and cultural context is so hard to understand. Doubtless, too, innumerable acts of appalling cruelty have been lost in oblivion. The most exquisite deliberate tortures, physical and mental, have been inflicted by human beings on one another (and were repeated between 1939 and 1945; many who did not themselves suffer in the evil of the Holocaust died under them). Terrible things, too, would be done after 1945. The overall record of the Nazis, nonetheless, strikes us still as uniquely dreadful because its perpetrators had no excuse for not knowing better. The torturers and exterminators were born of cultures that had centuries of moral reflexion and argument behind them, all the progressive thought of the last three centuries of European civilization, all the slowly refined, humanized teaching of Christianity. They had no excuse of ignorance or tradition. They had deliberately turned their back on the good.

Distinctions can of course be made among villains and certainly between perpetrators of brutal acts of war. There is a line that can be drawn between the evil and perverted Hitler and the bombastic, bullying but less corrupted Mussolini, between the doctrinal, lunatic cruelty of the SS and the often revengeful, embittered but still rationally defensible planners of the Allied strategic bombing offensive. However it felt to be its victim, there is a distinction to be drawn between Nazi tyranny and the fanatical, devoted ruthlessness of the Japanese, or even between Nazism and the brutal defensiveness expressed in Stalin’s near-paranoia with possible opposition. It was above all in Germany that the twentieth century revealed itself as an age when men in power in a civilized country deliberately chose to turn their backs on civilization.

The most immediately obvious further result of the war was its unprecedented physical destructiveness. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first victims of nuclear warfare, were not, in fact, the best evidence of this. It was most visible in the German and Japanese cities devastated by bombing. One of the major features of the Second World War, this proved much more costly to life and buildings than had been the bombing of Spanish cities in the Spanish Civil War (though those early essays in terror had been enough in their day to convince many observers that bombing alone could bring a country to its knees). In its effects, although bombing was often invaluable in combination with other forms of fighting, the huge strategic offensive against Germany built up by the British Royal Air Force from tiny beginnings in 1940, and steadily supplemented by the United States Air Force from 1942 onwards up to the point at which their combined forces could provide a target with continuous day and night bombing, achieved very little of decisive importance until the last few months of the war. Nor was the fiery destruction of Japan’s cities strategically so important as the elimination of her sea power.

The cost of victory in lives had been very great. The numbers will never be exactly known; it seems as if more than 50 million people must have perished round the world in military and naval operations. Battle casualties, above all on the eastern European fronts, far surpassed those of the Great War; Germany suffered more dead than in 1914 – 18 (about 3 million on the eastern front alone) and Russia the staggering possible loss of more than 20 million people, though not all on the battlefield. About half that number of Chinese, military and civilians together, died in all. Famine and disease helped to send up the overall total even as the fighting was drawing to a close – in Greece, for example – and in India a great famine in 1942 had carried off 2 million dead. As for individual acts of violence, bombing had killed hundreds of thousands of Germans and Japanese, while the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that similar holocausts could be even more easily achieved by the enormous power of nuclear weapons, of which those used in 1945 were only early and relatively feeble examples. It was probably true that no one before 1939, however fearful of war, would have guessed that human society could endure such bloodshed and survive.


Libya’s uprising began very much like the others. Qaddafi’s portrayal of his opponents as al-Qaeda inspired Islamists did not match the reality of a broadly based civil uprising. Courageous activists inspired by Tunisia and Egypt began to plan their own nonviolent protests using an already familiar mix of online and offline mobilizational tools. They selected February 17 as their revolutionary moment, and presented themselves as organically part of the broader Arab uprising which fit comfortably in the narrative of a regional revolutionary wave.

These protests changed to war almost immediately, without the long soul-searching and divisive argument which would soon consume the Syrian uprising. The early days of the war offered a bewildering but exhilarating spectacle of “do it yourself” armed rebellion. The Arab media’s transition from the cheering crowds dancing in Tahrir Square to the war footage was jarring. Flush with the impossible victories over Ben Ali and Mubarak, the mobilized Arab public had come to expect the once unthinkable. Footage of rebels commandeering pickup trucks and carrying out lightning raids against Qaddafi’s forces thrilled Libyans and foreign audiences alike. But those images were misleading. Qaddafi’s military had an overwhelming power advantage, which it rapidly brought to bear against the rebellious regions. The early gains of the rebels were quickly erased, as Qaddafi’s armor steadily advanced. By early March, his forces had pushed to the outskirts of Benghazi.

On February 22, Qaddafi warned that he would mow down protestors with tanks if needed. Such extremely hard-line rhetoric, aimed at a domestic audience, badly undermined his prospects abroad. Qaddafi’s tone may have been intended to restore the fear and perceived inevitability upon which his regime had for decades depended. But such public commitments created their own reality. His forces would almost certainly have carried out at least some massacres had Benghazi fallen, if for no other reason than to punish the challengers and restore the broken barrier of fear. To an international community primed by memories of Rwanda and Srebrenica, and guided by a highly partisan Arab media, his words signaled impending doom. His apocalyptic language thus played into the hands of the Libyan opposition and their Arab backers. The exterminationist language helped them enormously in their campaign to win American and ultimately United Nations and NATO military backing. The Obama administration blanched at the prospect of what one senior official vividly warned could quickly become “Srebrenica on steroids.”

The Arab push for intervention in Libya is one of the more remarkable moments in recent regional history. Since the founding of the Arab League, the regional order had been grounded in the principle of state sovereignty. This did not prevent competitive interventions, obviously, as the history of the Arab cold war of the 1950s makes abundantly clear. But direct cross-border invasions or overt military interventions were exceedingly rare in Arab politics. Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and Syria’s very brief incursion into Jordan in 1970 were among the very rare exceptions to this rule prior to Saddam Hussein’s shocking invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. His violation of that foundational norm of Arab politics was invoked repeatedly to mobilize Arab support for the coalition to liberate Kuwait and the war which followed. That norm weakened slightly in the following years, particularly with episodic Saudi campaigns against the Houthis in Yemen in the mid-2000s. But in general, the norm held. Indirect subversion remained the coin of the realm, while direct interventions remained infrequent and controversial.

The call for intervention in Libya violated another core norm governing Arab politics: opposition to Western intervention. While many Arab states had supported Operation Desert Storm in order to restore the Kuwaiti royal family to the throne, even this had been broadly unpopular with publics outside the Gulf. Arab hostility to Western military action and to the United States more broadly had spiked over the previous decade. Arabs loudly condemned America’s 2003 occupation of Iraq, support for Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon and 2009 war on Gaza, and the War on Terror. The Arab League’s invitation to NATO to intervene militarily against one of their own was thus revolutionary. So was the general (though, certainly not universal) Arab public embrace of that war. How could Qatar and the Arab League have gone from decades of near-universal denunciation of American intervention to a resounding public embrace of a NATO air campaign?

The common explanation for the invitation to NATO and the direct Arab military intervention was the extremity of Qaddafi’s brutality towards his own people. But, as the Bahrain campaign amply attested, the Arab regimes were hardly in a position to complain of such things given their own fiercely repressive ways. Arab states had shown little concern over Saddam Hussein’s late 1980s genocide against the Kurds or Hafez al-Asad’s leveling of Hama in 1982. Every Arab regime maintained power through an extensive security apparatus which employed variable degrees of brutality against its own people. To be blunt, refraining from violence against one’s own people was not and had never been a widely accepted norm governing Arab political order.

Qatar’s voice was the loudest in the mobilization of the Arab League in support of intervention. It took the driving role behind the unusual GCC activism on Libya, framing it as an intervention in support of, rather than against the regional uprising. Al-Jazeera, like Qatar’s official diplomatic rhetoric, emphasized its continuity with the other regional protests. This fit well with the generally enthusiastic support for the uprisings from Qatar, uniquely among the Gulf states. More surprising, perhaps, is that the Libya intervention initially became a vehicle for GCC cooperation rather than competition. Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia were initially on the same side, mobilizing their distinctive resources against Qaddafi and in support of the rebels. This unity did not last. As in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia, they were competing with each other from the start for influence with power brokers in the anticipated new Libya. The competition for rebel proxies in Libya helped to ensure that its transition would fail, and it set the stage for even worse to come in Syria.

For most of the external players, the initial choice of proxies was mostly a question of availability and convenience. Both Qatar and the UAE relied heavily on the networks of expatriates who happened to be resident in their countries as political exiles or businessmen from previous years. The Libyan journalist Mahmoud Shammam, who had happened to be involved with al-Jazeera and other Qatari media ventures in previous years, convinced Doha to support a pro-revolution television channel, which started to air almost immediately. Arif Ali Nayid, a Sufi cleric and telecoms magnate, played a similar role in Abu Dhabi, serving as a key contact point for Mahmoud Jibril to develop a network for funding and arms shipments from the UAE to compete with Qatar’s. Meanwhile, Turkey worked primarily through the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood but also engaged with more radical figures associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

In Libya, as elsewhere in the region, the historical presence of important Brotherhood figures in Qatar created a ready-made network upon which to draw. Muslim Brothers fleeing Nasserist repression in the 1950s and 1960s had played a crucial role in the construction of the Qatari state and educational system. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi featured prominently on al-Jazeera’s programming. It was not just Muslim Brothers, though. As Qatar rapidly expanded its diplomatic presence in the region during the 1990s and 2000s, it had positioned itself as a bridge between the competing camps and able to facilitate talks with anyone. Al-Jazeera played a useful role here, with invitations to appear on the station providing opportunities for Qatari officials to cultivate relationships with a wide range of political figures, intellectuals and activists. For instance, Ali Sallabi, Qatar’s key point of entry into Libya, was an Islamist who had run Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi’s controversial deradicalization program and was friendly with al-Qaradawi. His regular appearances on al-Jazeera made him familiar to Qatari diplomats, while allowing him a privileged place in shaping regional understanding of events in Libya.

Qatar and the Arab League mobilized both publicly and behind the scenes. The public face of the Gulf efforts came at the Arab League and the United Nations, and then the inclusion of its warplanes in the military coalition. On February 21, Ibrahim Dabashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN, resigned to great publicity and accused the Qaddafi regime of planning to carry out genocide. With very little media presence on the ground, his call for a no-fly zone and warnings of impending massacre shaped the international media coverage of unfolding events. Al-Jazeera filled in this gap eagerly, sending its own camera crew (one of whom would be killed in mid-March) and mobilizing an innovative network of citizen journalists to upload videos. An al-Jazeera report based on a supposed eyewitness to helicopter gunships shooting protestors from the air had an especially large impact, though those claims later proved difficult to substantiate.

The Libyan rebels urgently needed a political body to represent them abroad. Qatar again took the lead, sponsoring the creation of the National Transitional Council. The NTC had been formed on the fly in Benghazi on March 5, with Mustafa Abd al-Jalil named its president and the membership made to represent all of Libya’s regions. Its leadership was dominated by a small group of Western-educated technocrats and early defectors, many of whom had been affiliated with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi’s reform initiatives in the year 2000. Such personalities had earned some measure of trust from Western governments. The NTC was almost immediately recognized by the international community as the legitimate interlocutor for the military campaign and as the recipient of aid via the “Friends of Libya” coalition. Its main role at first was to work with the international community to muster financial and political support and to secure a reliable flow of weapons from abroad.

The speed and novelty of the international moves on Libya were frankly remarkable. The UN Security Council voted on February 26 to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court—only the second time it had ever done so, and the first unanimous referral of its type. The notoriously cautious ICC opened its investigation only five days later, and on May 16 issued arrest warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif, and intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi for crimes against humanity. France recognized the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people on March 10, some two weeks after its creation. Qatar followed suit on March 28, with broader acquiescence from the rest of the GCC. The Arab League soon suspended Libya’s membership. This shift in international recognition came incredibly rapidly given that Qaddafi’s government continued to control more than half of the country.

The international response rapidly moved towards military intervention. On March 12, the Arab League called on the UN to impose a no-fly zone as Qaddafi’s forces continued to advance, taking Ajdabia and moving rapidly towards Benghazi. On March 17, Saif al-Islam declared on radio that “in 48 hours, everything will be over.” This was followed, fatefully, by Qaddafi’s radio address declaring that the next day his forces would “cleanse the city of Benghazi . . . [W]e will track them down, and search for them, alley by alley, road by road.” The declaration of genocidal intent could not have been more perfectly timed for the supporters of the rebels feverishly seeking a Security Council vote for intervention.

On March 17, the Security Council voted for Resolution 1973, authorizing “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians. Qaddafi halted his advance as he waited to see what precisely this meant, and announced his acceptance of a cease-fire. There is little reason to believe that there was a deal to be had at this point or that a cease-fire would have lasted more than a few days.

On March 19, NATO began bombing. The initial air strikes had a powerful psychological effect on both regime and rebel forces. Benghazi celebrated rapturously, to the delight of Gulf and Western capitals eager for validation of their risky military venture. Many, perhaps, expected a rapid rebel victory to follow from the introduction of NATO forces into the conflict. But Qaddafi, predictably, did not fold. His forces quickly adapted to the threat of air strikes, moving away from easily targeted convoys and massed forces to a more dispersed deployment. This slowed the tempo of the battle, as regime forces sought to avoid NATO air strikes while rebels chafed against restrictive NATO rules of engagement.

Air power could only accomplish so much, beyond stabilizing front lines and supporting the available forces on the ground. The United States had made clear that it would only operate in a support role, and that no ground forces would be forthcoming. The coalition forces rapidly ran low on obvious targets. They also, to Russia’s open consternation, quickly expanded their interpretation of the UN mandate from defensive operations to prevent mass slaughter to support for offensive operations and, ultimately, regime change. In Misrata, NATO support involved “precision air power, combined with the presence of foreign ground advisors working alongside the city’s defenders.” NATO targeting was tightly constrained by the UN mandate to protect civilians, leading to frequent clashes with and complaints from rebels who wanted more active and aggressive support for offensive operations. Obama, for his part, hawkishly watched for any hint of mission creep. But such restraint did not extend to the initial decision to expand the mission from civilian protection in Benghazi to support for the insurgency to topple Qaddafi by force.

Quite early on, Qatari, UAE and NATO special operations forces became actively involved, embedding in rebel units to provide training and to call in air strikes. The presence of British and French Special Forces in Benghazi and Misrata was an open secret, as were the planeloads of Qatari weapons arriving by early April. These small numbers on the ground had an outsized impact. As Frederic Wehrey has explained in a comprehensive survey of the role of air power in the war, “[T]he presence of foreign ground advisors working with Libyan opposition forces had a transformative effect on air power. Libyan interlocutors described how, in the operations rooms of Misrata, Zintan, and Benghazi, these advisors built trust between Western forces and the opposition and—most importantly—coordinated air strikes.” The NTC and rebel leaders routinely met with Qatari, UAE, British, French, and American senior military officials to plan strategy, coordinate public messaging, and solicit additional support. These military operations centers and joint operations rooms would become a standard operating procedure to coordinate indirect military support operations in Syria and the other coming limited interventions.

The decentralized and indirect nature of the intervention helped to bring about the proliferation of the militias, which would later come to plague the transition. Many of these militias were actually local defense forces, in cities such as Misrata, which became the primary vehicle for external support. Others came from wider political or ideological trends, whether Islamist, tribal, or ideologically affiliated. Connections to some outside source of weapons and funds was a vital currency for influence in this environment. Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had considerable independent sources of funds and weapons from Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf. Qatari and other Gulf-supplied weapons continued to pour in from Tunisia and through airlifts. Rebels frequently complained about the limitations of NATO bombing, inadequate supplies, and the other usual grievances.

As the NTC began to evolve from a coordinating body for the international community into a proto-government in waiting, the struggle for representation and its relationship with the armed militias took on ever greater significance. The external powers jockeyed to get their people into leadership positions, leading to debilitating internal politicking at a time of urgent military threat. The NTC’s decision-making was typically opaque, given the primary focus on engaging international sponsors and the constant sense of crisis surrounding the revolution. The NTC’s members, many of whom were honest and competent, commanded little local constituencies or support on the ground. More liberal-minded Libyans wondered about the democratic legitimacy of a self-appointed and Western-backed council, while every faction and region which considered itself underrepresented demanded a greater share of seats. Meanwhile, questions about the true loyalties of defectors and rumors of corruption circulated wildly through the unregulated new media.

Finances were key for the NTC’s viability and legitimacy, and international players were central to this dimension. On March 29, with the support of the US and UK, Qatar took the lead in organizing oil sales for the NTC, facilitated a line of credit in order to ensure its solvency, and began direct cash transfers in late June. In June, Turkey stepped in, transferring $100 million in cash and a similar amount of humanitarian aid directly to the NTC. It was followed by cash transfers from Kuwait and Bahrain. Finally, on July 15, the US also recognized the NTC and allowed the release of some $400 million in frozen Libyan assets.

Weapons too were a vital currency. On March 22, in a meeting in Doha, Qatar agreed to supply the Libyans with a shipment of weapons. This commitment was made public on April 13 at the Contact Group meeting in Doha, and the next week shipments directly to Abd al-Fattah al-Younes, rebel military commander, from Doha began to arrive. In April, however, these arms shipments began to flow directly to Tubruq via Sallabi’s Islamist networks, bypassing the NTC structures and infuriating Younes. Qatar also worked through local Misrata networks, often flown directly to the front lines and directed towards individuals with Qatari personal connections. Jibril and Nayid, in turn, began to rely more heavily on direct weapons flows from the UAE. The same competition applied with joint operations centers and the coordination of the air war: Qatari forces embedded with key Islamist battalions, while Emirati advisers supported the efforts of General Abd el-Salam al-Hasi and then, later, Mahmud Jibril’s faction.

In July, this struggle threatened the survival of the rebellion itself. Younes, the commander of the rebel forces, had defected on February 22 and played a pivotal role in organizing the nascent rebel forces and carving out a physical base for the insurgency. On July 28, he was killed in highly mysterious circumstances, throwing the rebellion into sharp internal disarray. The NTC survived, in part due to the success of the move into Tripoli, but in the interim the entire executive board of the NTC was fired and a transitional road map was adopted setting out the conditions for the NTC to dissolve itself upon liberation.

Even as the war against Qaddafi raged, the militias associated with different external patrons were jockeying for position within the expected post-Qaddafi Libya. Once NATO entered the fray, Qaddafi’s eventual defeat was almost universally expected. This reduced the urgency of cooperation among the rebel factions and increased the political stakes over seats on the National Transitional Council and control over access to weapons and other resources. This infighting, along with the resilience of the Qaddafi forces and the limitations on the mandate for NATO intervention, prolonged the conflict dangerously. NATO governments were keenly aware of the propaganda implications of civilian casualties, and by the summer faced growing political pressure either to escalate or end the war. The air war bogged down, and frustration set in. The longer bombing went on, the greater the risk of a spectacular civilian casualty event, which could fatally undermine international support for the mission.

The August 20 move into Tripoli, which unseated the Qaddafi regime, temporarily masked these emergent issues. This operation had been meticulously planned and largely implemented with Qatari, British, and NATO support. Rebels captured the presidential palace to delirious enthusiasm. Photographs of rebels planting the Qatari flag were met with somewhat less acclaim, particularly since the Tripoli operation had preempted a rival plan for liberating Tripoli developed by the UAE and Mahmud Jibril in early July. Both of these competing plans relied upon NATO involvement, each hoped to block the success of the other, and both played out to some degree during the chaotic moment of liberation. This would not be the last time that the Qatari-Emirati competition overshadowed decisive moments in Libya.

In the immediate aftermath of the seizure of Tripoli, the Qatari and UAE-backed networks were locked in an intense showdown over who would take control of Tripoli. Libyan leaders shuttled between Doha, Abu Dhabi, and NATO, while local forces met suspiciously on the ground. By September, tentative steps had been taken to establish state authority over the flows of military and financial aid, and to establish central political control. But external patronage loomed large. As General Khalifa Haftar complained, “If aid comes through the front door, we like Qatar. But if it comes through the window to certain people [and] bypassing official channels, we don’t want Qatar.”

This would become a constant refrain as politics polarized and militias carved out autonomous roles in post-liberation Libya. The networks, foreign linkages, and channels of influence which had developed during the course of the war continued to shape the course of politics. The celebrations, which greeted the Qatari flag when Tripoli was taken, soon faded as attention turned to post-Qaddafi institutions and power. The distribution of power among the militias and within the ruling councils were an artifact of those linkages, not a naturally occurring reflection of power on the ground. Access to sources of weapons and funds constituted real power in the institutional void which followed Qaddafi’s fall, and those with such access had little incentive to surrender it to the nascent state institutions.

The refusal to surrender arms by these forces was not purely a matter of self-interest or ambition. In the violent transitional period, the state was in no position to guarantee their survival or to credibly guarantee against the re-centralization of power or predatory rule. The importance of these wartime networks was compounded by the relatively light hand of international forces in the reconstruction phase. The US had quite wisely ruled out any American peacekeeping force, while allies such as Britain and France, who had been expected to play such a role, failed to do so. Above all, Libya’s new leaders consistently rejected any international peacekeeping forces in the country. Their objections forced the United Nations to scale back even its limited August 2011 plan for several hundred armed military observers.

This meant that it fell upon the victorious rebels and the external backers to build a new Libya from the aftermath of decades of Qaddafi and six months of war. The failure of the new transitional government to disarm or integrate the militias is now widely seen as the critical failure dooming the transition. In truth, it is difficult to see how they could have done so given the realities of power on the ground. The revolutionary brigades had played as much of a role in overthrowing Qaddafi as had the new government. They were locally popular and heavily armed. In comparison, the Libyan state had only minimal armed forces and much more limited access to military support from abroad.

Many now argue that these problems might have been avoided had the United States been willing to deploy stabilization forces, either its own or from its coalition partners. Few supporters of the Libya intervention called at the time for such peacekeeping forces, primarily because they knew that it would have been a political kiss of death for the campaign. The retroactive advocacy for such a force often seems to be more a matter of finding an excuse for the intervention’s failure which would not compromise future interventions. Even had it been possible, the idea that a stabilization force would have made the difference misses the many ways in which such an international military deployment could have gone wrong, without solving any of the deeper problems. An international force would have confronted the same array of heavily armed militias, forcing it to tread carefully. Its presence could have disincentivized rather than facilitated the creation of national security forces. It could easily have become a target for nationalist mobilization and Islamist attacks. And, once established as a vital guarantor of stability on the ground, it would have been virtually impossible to withdraw.

The limited postwar international presence responded to the political demands of the new Libyan leadership and aligned with the preferences of the Obama administration. As the former White House coordinator emphatically put it, “Libyans had to shape their own future.” But there was never a moment when Libyans had the option of shaping their own future free of foreign influence. The regional interventions which had shaped the entire structure of the postwar political arena would continue with devastating effect.


Libya’s course had direct and indirect effects on the region far beyond those originally anticipated. The intervention likely did, as promised, give a vital jolt of new energy to challengers in other Arab countries and give regimes pause as they considered the use of violence. NATO did get some credit for saving of Benghazi from its fate, although its actions would always be criticized as too little and too late. The positive effects did not last long, given the greater priority of urgent local considerations over calculations of possible international involvement, but they were clearly felt in the early stages.

When the initial expectation of rapid victory for Libya’s rebels following the NATO intervention failed to materialize, the war consumed an enormous amount of Western attention through the end of the summer. Coordinating the international alliance, nurturing the nascent Libyan opposition, and running the war left less time for the complex political situations elsewhere in the region. The need to maintain the Gulf component of the Libya alliance bound Western hands when it came to other arenas such as Bahrain and Yemen. The sheer pace and diversity of simultaneous political crises overwhelmed the diplomatic agenda.

The war directly impacted its neighbors. Refugees pouring into Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia affected local economies in both positive and negative ways. The neighbors became key organizational and transit points for the evolving rebellion. Meanwhile, the fighting left Libya awash in weaponry, great quantities of which would ultimately find a way into not only its neighbors but also into more distant conflict zones such as the Sinai and Syria.

Libya was not the only regional playing field emerging over the summer of 2011. The key transitional cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen all involved significant and growing regional effects and interventions which shaped their transitional path—usually for the worse.


The Aouzou Strip, highlighted in red.

Chad became independent from France in 1960, and like the other huge countries lying along the Sahel region—Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Sudan—suffered from the north–south divide. The north was poor, many of its people were nomadic, and they were ethnically Arab, Tuareg or Arabicized, and Muslim. The south was more populous, more westernized as a result of colonialism, and the population was black African, following African traditional religions or Christianity rather than Islam. These were mainly settled agricultural people who were better off in both material and educational terms than the nomads of the north. This divide between north and south made the subsequent civil wars easier to understand, though these were greatly complicated by other considerations: struggles between rival contenders for power, the role of Libya, which laid claim to the Aozou Strip in the north, and interventions by France, sometimes urged on by the United States, as well as neighbors such as Nigeria and Zaire.

Background and Beginnings

In 1962, Chad’s first post-independence president, François Tombalbaye, made Chad a one-party state and though this political decision was accepted by the south, it was rejected in the north. French troops, which had remained in the north after independence, were withdrawn in 1964 and replaced by sections of the Chad National Army, whose soldiers were recruited from the south. These troops were soon at odds with the local people. A first revolt against southern domination occurred in 1966 at Oueddai; the rebels secured some limited support from Sudan. This and other brief rebellions at this time were uncoordinated and largely ineffective; they were in reaction to taxes, the behavior (and presence) of central government civil servants, and, more generally, because of longstanding northern suspicions of any southern interference. Slowly, these northern rebels came together to create a central organization—the Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad (FROLINAT)/Chad National Liberation Front. It was then recognized by the Libyan government (which had its own reasons for intervening in the affairs of Chad) and provided with offices in Tripoli.

The First Phase: 1966–75

The civil war, which gradually developed, was complicated by external factors. It was predominantly a struggle between the widely different peoples of north and south whose various leaders over the years sought power for themselves. But it also involved France, which intervened several times with military force over a period of 20 years on behalf of the government in the south, while Libya provided the principal external support for FROLINAT, which represented the northern rebels. In the later stages of these wars, during the 1980s, the United States became involved, offering financial support to the south and reinforcing France’s interventions, largely in order to contain Libyan expansionism.

Dr. Abba Siddick was the first leader of FROLINAT in 1966, but he was soon to be replaced by Goukouni Oueddei, who was prepared to rely upon Libyan support. At first, FROLINAT obtained aid from Algeria, but from 1971 onward relied upon Libya. Tombalbaye attempted to appease FROLINAT by taking northerners into his cabinet, but his overtures were rejected. In 1968, as the war increased in intensity, France sent an air force contingent to reinforce the government of Tombalbaye, and the following year dispatched 1,600 troops to Chad. Their numbers were reduced in 1971 and withdrawn in 1972, and though their presence had not made a great deal of difference to the fighting on the ground, this first French intervention set a pattern for the future. Following a coup attempt against him, Tombalbaye accused Libya of complicity in the FROLINAT rebellion and broke off diplomatic relations, but this action merely persuaded Libya to recognize FROLINAT. The fighting became serious in the early 1970s with FROLINAT capturing a number of northern towns, including Bardai and Faya-Largeau.

FROLINAT had no discernible ideology apart from race and religion and its consequent determination to control the government. Like many such movements, FROLINAT was subject to internal tensions and splits. Goukouni Oeddei and his Forces Armées Populaires (FAP)/Popular Armed Forces proved too independent for Libya’s purposes and so it switched its support to the new Front d’Action Commune (FAC)/Front for Common Action, which was led by Ahmat Acyl. A third splinter group emerged: the Forces Armées du Nord (FAN)/Armed Forces of the North led by Hissène Habré.

In November 1972, the governments of Chad and Libya resumed diplomatic relations and signed a pact of friendship. This was no more than a temporary pause for breath, however, for in 1973 Libya moved its own armed forces into the Aozou Strip of northern Chad, which it proceeded to annex. Libya justified this action in terms of a 1935 Franco–Italian Protocol, which had recognized 111,370 square kilometers (43,000 square miles) of northern Chad as part of Italian Libya. Subsequently, France had not ratified the Protocol, but there existed clear grounds for argument as to which country had rights of possession. The region was all the more important because it contained substantial resources of uranium. In 1975, Tombalbaye was ousted in a coup by General Felix Malloum, but he proved unable either to subdue the northern rebels and bring the civil war to an end or to expel the Libyans from the Aozou Strip.

The Second Phase: 1975–1986

Following the seizure of three French hostages by FROLINAT in 1975, Malloum fell out with Paris and ended France’s base facilities in N’Djamena, although they were restored the following year. In January 1978, Malloum met Habré, the leader of the FAN; they agreed upon a ceasefire and a new government, which would include FROLINAT members. This was an attempt by Malloum to keep FROLINAT divided, but it broke down as FROLINAT, in reaction, became reunited and proceeded to inflict a series of defeats on the Chad army, capturing Fada and Faya Largeau in the process and splitting the country so that the whole of the north was held by FROLINAT, the south by the government. A ceasefire between the two sides followed, but in April 1978 FROLINAT broke it and its forces advanced on the capital. France intervened again, this time sending a force of 2,500 Legionnaires and several squadrons of fighter-bombers in support of the government. In June, the French and Chadian forces launched a major offensive against FROLINAT and inflicted heavy losses upon it at Ati. As a result, Malloum’s government, which had been close to collapse, recovered.

Libya, meanwhile, had committed between 2,000 and 3,000 troops to the support of FROLINAT, so that by mid-1978, both France and Libya were heavily involved in the Chad war. Although the French forces had halted the southward advance of FROLINAT, they had not defeated them. Consequently, the country was divided between the south held by the government supported by France and the north held by FROLINAT supported by Libya. Habré of the FAN now made an agreement with Malloum: the latter would remain as president while Habré would become prime minister; his army, the FAN, would be demobilized and its members integrated into the national army. At this point France supported Habré. The alliance was short-lived and had broken down by December 1978. The FAN had not been disbanded, and by January 1979 FAN troops were clashing with the regular army and proving to be a superior fighting force. Then Goukouni’s FROLINAT forces advanced upon N’Djamena to join with Habré in attacking the government, and in a coup of February 1979, Habré ousted Malloum. This coup was followed by a general war, with the Muslim forces from the north massacring black southerners and vice versa.

The Forces Armées du Tchad (FAT)/Armed Forces of Chad were rallied by Colonel Abdelkader Kamougue, a former foreign minister, and military order was re-established. Nigeria now intervened in an effort to counterbalance Libyan influence. The Nigerian government hosted peace talks at Kano in northern Nigeria during March and April 1979. These involved Habré, Goukouni, Malloum, a pro-Nigerian party which had emerged, and Libya, as well as Cameroon, Niger, and Sudan as further putative peacemakers. A cease-fire was agreed upon and a Gouvernement d’Union Nationale de Transition (GUNT)/National Union Transitional Government was established. Habré and Malloum “resigned” and Goukouni was appointed president of GUNT. The various armies were to be integrated. Nigeria then overstepped its role as a peacemaker by trying to impose its own candidate, Mahamat Abba, upon Chad, leading both Habré and Goukouni to quit the conference. On their return to N’Djamena, Habré and Goukouni agreed to form a government of national unity of their own, but this, too, did not last and Chad reverted to factional squabbles and fighting.

In March 1980, fighting broke out in N’Djamena between Kamougue’s FAT and Habré’s FAN and continued all year. France decided to withdraw and had taken its troops out of Chad by May. Then, in June, Goukouni signed a treaty of friendship with Libya but without consulting the GUNT to which he belonged. An offensive by Habré’s FAN in the north resulted in major retaliation by Libyan forces whose planes attacked Faya-Largeau and N’Djamena, while its troops, in combination with those of Goukouni, overran large areas. Backed by 5,000 Libyan troops Goukouni took the capital, N’Djamena; it was a triumph for Goukouni. He now overreached himself by entering into an agreement with Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi for an eventual union of Chad and Libya, an agreement which provoked a major international reaction. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) embarked upon intensive diplomacy, which was backed by both France and the United States, to prevent Gaddafi from extending his influence into Chad and by mid-1981, under strong French pressure, Libya withdrew its forces from N’Djamena. At a meeting in Nairobi in June 1981, the OAU agreed to establish a peacekeeping force, which both France and the United States promised to help finance. This was mounted in December of that year when 2,000 Nigerian troops, 2,000 Zairean, and 800 Senegalese under the command of a Nigerian, Major General Ejisa, arrived in Chad. This force remained neutral, although Goukouni had hoped to use it to destroy the FAN and Habré; instead, the OAU persuaded the Libyans to withdraw, with the result that Habré, in the north, obtained many of their weapons and was able to renew his struggle against Goukouni. His fortunes were again in the ascendant, and in June 1982, Habré took N’Djamena unopposed: Kamougue fled as his support collapsed and Goukouni also fled to Algeria.

By October 1982, Habré had established a government in N’Djamena; not only was the FAN more efficient now than Goukouni’s forces, but the latter had lost support in the south by agreeing to Libya’s claims in the north. A new pro-Habré Forces Armées Nationales Tchadiennes (FANT)/National Armed Forces of Chad was formed. By 1983, Habré had gained international recognition; however, Goukouni was making a recovery in the north. Habré refused to deal with Libya, which maintained its claim to the Aozou Strip, while the FAN now became riven by factions. In April, fighting broke out between FAN troops and the Nigerians over counterclaims between Chad and Nigeria to islands in Lake Chad, with the Nigerians allying themselves with anti-Habré groups. French mercenaries assisted the FAN which, nonetheless, suffered some 300 casualties (dead).

In June 1983, Gaddafi increased the level of Libyan support for Goukouni, but this led to a new French intervention (in part the result of U.S. pressures) with 2,800 troops. These created an east–west line (the Red Line) across the country to prevent Goukouni’s forces from coming further south. At this point, violence erupted in the extreme south of the country and Habré was not immediately in a position to bring this under control; numbers of refugees from the violence fled into neighboring countries. In the north, Libyan planes bombed Oum Chalouba before being repulsed with heavy losses by Habré’s forces. In September 1983, Habré visited France to take part in the Franco–African summit and criticized France for not being prepared to fight the Libyans. The war continued through 1984 with substantial casualties on both sides. In mid-1984, Habré dissolved FROLINAT and replaced it with the Union Nationale pour l’Indépendence et la Révolution (UNIR)/National Union for Independence and Revolution in an effort to create a more evenly balanced north–south government, but it did not work. Further fighting in the south erupted in August 1984 and was met by brutal government repression so that refugees flooded into Central African Republic (CAR). The fighting continued to April 1985. In September 1984, France and Libya agreed to withdraw their troops simultaneously from Chad, and by 10 November, all 3,300 French troops had left the country, although Libya kept its forces in the far north. President François Mitterand admitted he had been fooled by Gaddafi. France then made an offer to send troops back to Chad, but Habré refused since he distrusted French motives. Through 1985, Habré consolidated his power in the south and appeared to have brought the rebellion there under control. By October 1985, however, the Libyans had an estimated 4,000 troops in the north of Chad.

The Third Phase: 1986–1990

In February 1986, the civil war became an international war when the Libyans launched an offensive across the 16th parallel of latitude north, the line France had established dividing the country. Gaddafi had assumed that France would not send troops back to Chad, but he had miscalculated. Initially Habré’s forces repulsed the Libyan attack; then he appealed to France for aid and French bombers from bases in CAR bombed the Libyan airstrip at Ouadi Doum, northeast of Faya-Largeau. France then established an air strike force in Chad. The United States (in April 1986 the United States had bombed Libya in an attempt to “take out” Gaddafi) now provided Habré with $10 million in aid. At the same time, Goukouni’s GUNT was disintegrating and many of its members defected to Habré. By mid-November, U.S. arms for Chad were arriving in Douala, Cameroon, and France had sent 1,000 troops to support its air units, and these were deployed along the 16th parallel of latitude. Then, in December, Habré launched an offensive against the Libyans in the extreme north at Bardai and in the Tibesti Mountains. French aircraft dropped supplies for his forces. Otherwise, despite Habré’s urgent requests for their help, the French appeared unwilling to become further involved fighting the Libyans, although they had 1,200 troops along the 16th parallel and a further 4,000 stationed in CAR. Habré, especially, wanted anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns. The Libyans now had an estimated 6,000–8,000 troops in Chad. Only after Habré had pleaded that 20 years of war had wrecked the Chad economy and that he was not strong enough to face Libya unaided, did France agree to drop supplies for his forces, while the United States promised a further $15 million in aid. The French publicly discouraged Habré from attacking the Libyans, but then in mid-December, Goukouni’s forces, which had switched to Habré’s side the previous October, inflicted a major defeat on the Libyans.

At Bardai, 400 Libyans were killed and 17 of their tanks destroyed. France now agreed to assist Habré, who went north to attack the Libyans and assist the 3,000 Goukouni troops. This juncture represented a rapprochement between Habré and Goukouni’s FAP, although Goukouni himself appeared to be a prisoner in Tripoli. These Libyan reversals at the end of 1986 offered the best opportunity yet of bringing the civil war to an end. At the beginning of 1987, Habré’s forces launched a major offensive against the Libyans, who were forced to quit most of the towns they had occupied including Ouadi Doum. The Libyans then met with a major defeat at Fada when 784 soldiers were reported killed and 100 (Soviet) tanks were destroyed. Later 130 Libyan prisoners were displayed to the diplomatic corps in N’Djamena. During January, French planes ferried supplies to the north as Habré prepared for a further advance, while Libya built up its forces to an estimated 15,000 men and France sent a further 1,000 troops to Chad. In March 1987, Habré’s forces under the command of Hassan Djamous captured Ouadi Doum, which was Libya’s base for its strike aircraft: 3,600 Libyans were killed, 700 were captured, and 2,000 died of thirst in the desert as they fled. The Libyans now gave up Faya-Largeau and retreated further north while Habré, at last, appeared able to extend his authority over the whole country. Another 2,000–3,000 Libyan troops were isolated across the border in the Darfur Province of Sudan. Many of the Libyan troops were, in fact, mercenaries who had been pressed into the Islamic Pan-African Legion; these were originally people who had gone to Libya to seek work. The Chad war appeared to be deeply unpopular in Libya.

A Precarious Peace

France and Senegal (chair of the OAU) tried to persuade Habré to take the issue of the Aozou Strip to arbitration (April 1987), but Habré refused, stating his determination to recapture it. In August his forces took Aozou town but then were forced to retreat under heavy Libyan air attacks. However, in September FANT forces captured Maater-es-Surra in southeast Libya, destroying 22 aircraft and 100 tanks and killing 1,700 Libyans. Habré now had troops in southern Libya and controlled the whole of Chad; on 11 September 1987, a cease-fire with Libya was agreed upon. However, Habré did not have control of the Aozou Strip and a stalemate between Libya and Chad continued through 1988, especially as France was not prepared to help Habré take over the Aozou Strip, which had been heavily fortified by the Libyans. A breakthrough came in May 1988, when Gaddafi announced his readiness to recognize the Habré government and provide a “Marshall Plan” to reconstruct war-damaged areas of Chad.

Casualties over more than 20 years of civil war, with its various foreign interventions, are extremely difficult to quantify; at times the fighting had only been between Chad factions, at others the French and Libyans were active on either side, and by the end it was a war between Chad and Libya. During the fight for N’Djamena in 1980, between 3,000 and 4,000 people were killed. From 1965 to the end of the 1970s possibly 20,000 people were killed, while a further 30,000 died during the 1980s. The short conflict between Chad and Nigeria in 1983 over Lake Chad resulted in between 300 and 500 Chadians being killed. Claims and counterclaims for casualties were often conflicting and the casualties for 1987 in the fighting with Libya are at best approximations since Chad undoubtedly inflated the figures for Libyan casualties, while Libya played down its losses, which were in the region of 4,000 dead, 200 tanks and 45 aircraft destroyed. Libyan interventions were certainly very costly, but it could rely upon its oil wealth to meet the bill; Chad, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It was heavily dependent upon French financial and military aid, and French forces came and went three times during the 20-year war. Chad also received financial and military assistance from the United States ($25 million in 1983; $15 million in 1987). The French estimated the cost of maintaining their troops in Chad at approximately $420,000 a day and these interventions were not popular in France. At various stages of the war refugees from Chad crossed into Sudan and CAR and in the 1980s, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were up to 25,000 refugees in Darfur Province of Sudan.

Habré’s great year of triumph was 1987: he fought the Libyans to a standstill and invaded their territory before obtaining a ceasefire; Gaddafi agreed to recognize his government and provide aid; and finally Libya agreed to go to arbitration over the Aozou Strip. On 31 August 1989, Chad and Libya agreed to spend a year seeking a solution to their differences, while an OAU Observer Force administered the Aozou Strip and France and Libya undertook to withdraw their forces in stages. However, in December 1990, General Idriss Déby, who had been in exile in Darfur, Sudan, overthrew Habré in a coup. He released Libyan prisoners who had been held since 1988 and was believed to have received support for his coup from Gaddafi. Nonetheless, on 5 September 1991, Chad and Libya signed a security agreement of bilateral cooperation and both the internal and external wars appeared to have come to an end. On 3 February 1994, the International Court of Justice ruled by 16 to one to confirm Chad’s sovereignty over the Aozou Strip, and on 31 May, the Aozou Strip was formally returned to Chad.

Pacific War January-November 1943 Part I

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Combined Fleet, transferred headquarters to Rabaul for Operation I-Go.

Histories of the Pacific inevitably gloss over the events between the end of the Guadalcanal and the landings in the Gilbert Islands. In this period ‘nothing happened’ —  the equivalent of June 1943 in the European theater of operations as the month, with German losses totaling only nineteen tanks and thirty-six assault guns, when the world held its breath at the prospect of what was to come.

It is easy to pass over this period. There were no great shifts in territorial ownership. Certain islands changed hands but none of any consequence, and indeed prior to 1942 few people in Britain, Japan, and the United States would even have heard of most of them. There were no major battles, whether on land, at sea, or in the air. It must be admitted that there were a number of naval actions in the central and upper Solomons, but these were small in scale and none was of any real importance, although one point does demand acknowledgment. The clear American victories at Vella Gulf (6-7 August 1943) and at Cape St. George (26 November 1943) indicate the extent to which Japanese superiority in night fighting, doctrine, and technique had passed.

Acknowledgment of this change is essential to any understanding of the Pacific war because an explanation of this conflict is possible, if only in part, on the basis of this period being a watershed. In the first year or so of the Pacific war two interwar navies fought one another to exhaustion. Initially, Japan’s enemies, each individually weaker than its common foe, were defeated separately by a Japan that possessed local superiority and the advantage of the initiative and surprise. In some five months, Japan secured all those territories for which it went to war, and after the defeat off Midway it then settled for a defensive strategy that sought to fight the United States to exhaustion. This strategy was very largely achieved, and a glance at any map showing the changes of ownership of islands in the Pacific or territory in eastern and Southeast Asia between May 1942 and November 1943 will immediately reveal how little progress the Allies made in seeking to reverse the defeats of the first phase of hostilities. But, in fact, after November 1943 the United States, with a fleet that was principally a wartime creation, carried the war to the enemy, and it did so in a way that was remarkable on several counts. Naval wars invariably are slow and seldom noted for speed. The Pacific war lasted forty-four months, which was a remarkably short period for a naval war, and it ended with the Americans having taken war to the shores of the enemy state and, in effect, having defeated that state: American carrier aircraft even flew combat patrols over airfields in the Japanese home islands. Such achievements have few parallels in history, and it is possible to argue that, in terms of decision, the Pacific war ended in November 1943. By this time the United States had come into possession of such margins of superiority in the conduct of amphibious operations that its victory in any single landing operation was assured. The only questions that remained were ones of timing, cost, and the exact nature of its final victory over Japan.

Lest this interpretation of events be doubted, reference to one fact should be noted. In February 1945 five American carrier task groups operated off the Japanese home islands and mustered between them 119 warships: eleven fleet and five light fleet carriers, eight fast battleships, one battle cruiser, five heavy and twelve light cruisers, and seventy-seven destroyers. Of these ships only the fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga and the heavy cruisers San Francisco and Indianapolis fully predated Pearl Harbor, although also present were the battleships Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington and the light cruisers San Diego and San Juan, all of which had been launched before 7 December 1941. Any perusal of the lists of warships involved in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa reveals similar pedigree. The battleships detailed to support these landings, but virtually nothing else, predated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the escort carriers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, transports, and assault shipping virtually without exception were built after 7 December 1941, and it was this achievement on the part of American shipyards that was so relevant in this period between the end of the Guadalcanal campaign and the landings in the Gilbert Islands. This was the time when the first results of this massive building effort really began to deliver warships, assault shipping, and merchantmen in numbers-indeed, in such numbers that Japan could no longer hope to evade final defeat. American merchantman production reached its peak in this period. In March 1943, American yards launched no fewer than 140 Liberty Ships, that is, a 7, 176-ton “deplorable-looking object” every 310 minutes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s description was less than complimentary, but there is no indication that he ever questioned the Liberty Ship’s worth. Herein lies the basis of explanation rather than a mere description of events. If one refuses to accept that Japan’s defeat was assured from the time that its carrier aircraft struck at the U. S. Pacific Fleet at its base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, then it was in the first two years of the Pacific war that the basis of America’s victory and Japan’s defeat was established.

Nonetheless, in setting down such a notion two points need to be noted. First, to recognize that a war is a total one is to recognize that its military dimension can only partially explain its course and outcome. There must also be recognition of the war’s nonmilitary dimensions, in such matters as choice of allies and economic issues. But to recognize that a war involves alliances is to recognize that no single nation can ever account for any single dimension of that war. The United States was by far the most important single member of the United Nations involved in war with Japan after December 1941 and it could have completed the defeat of Japan through its own efforts. But that was not the victory that was won between 1941 and 1945. Other powers played their part, at this stage of events none more obviously than China, in contributing to Japan’s overcommitment and exhaustion of resources. These aspects of Japan’s defeat, over time and distance and of resources, lacked the immediacy and obvious impact of military defeat in the field, and in the final analysis it is the reality of military defeat that decides the outcome of wars. But an intelligent appreciation of both the nature and conduct of the Pacific war lies in recognition of contributions of differing worth and importance.

Second, in seeking to explain events one has to acknowledge the events themselves: explanation does not do away with the need for recounting. In the Solomons the campaign on Guadalcanal witnessed on 10 January 1943 the start of the U. S. offensive that was to result in the clearing of Guadalcanal. American forces landed at Verahue on 1 February, but by this time the Japanese were committed to the evacuation of their forces, which was completed between 1 and 7 February, without the Americans realizing what was at hand. When the Americans did realize what had happened they moved immediately to occupy the Russells (21 February), and at the same time the Japanese defeat in eastern New Guinea assumed an added dimension with the breaking of their offensive from the Mobu area against Wau (21 January-2 February): the Japanese were obliged to withdraw from the Wau area between 3 and 9 February.

Thereafter, events in eastern New Guinea and in the Solomons continued to run in tandem much as they had over the previous five or six months. March 1943 saw a major Japanese defeat in the Bismarck Sea at the hands of American shore-based air power, and also a minor action in Kula Gulf in which an American cruiser-destroyer force sank two Japanese destroyers carrying supplies to the garrison at Vila. Between 7 and 18 April the Imperial Navy, having flown four carrier air groups into Rabaul, conducted what was grandiloquently described as a major air offensive over the Solomons and eastern New Guinea. As always, the Japanese claims of success were grossly exaggerated, and evidence of this fact was provided on 18 April when the Americans shot down a transport carrying Yamamoto to Buin. If the Japanese operation had been successful such an episode could not have happened, but what was even more remarkable about this whole affair is that the Japanese mounted three operations during this offensive-on 7, 11, and 14 April-and with never more than 200 aircraft in any single effort. Moreover, they attacked Lunga Point-Henderson Field and then Oro Bay (near Buna) and Milne Bay in succession. How single efforts against three separated targets, two of which had been stocked by the Allies over seven-month periods, were supposed to reverse recent Japanese defeats is far from clear. But from early June 1943, almost as if they staged a demonstration of how things should be done, the Americans systematically fought for air supremacy over the central Solomons in preparation for a series of landings throughout the theater.

On 21 June, American forces came ashore on southern New Georgia, and then on 23-24 June on Woodlark Island and on 28-29 June on Kriiwana. With the whole of eastern New Guinea thus secured, American forces came ashore on 30 June on Rendova in the central Solomons, near Salamaua and on Woodlark and the Trobriand Islands, off eastern New Guinea, and in Nassau Bay. These actions sparked simultaneous American and Japanese landings in Kula Gulf on 4-5 July and then the naval battles of Kula Gulf (6 July) and Kolombangara (13 July). The American capture of the airfield at Munda, New Georgia, on 5 August prompted the battle of Vella Gulf (6-7 August), and the Americans’ crushing victory in that battle paved the way for their landings on Vella Lavella (15 August) and on Arundel Island (27 August).

With the American grip on the central Solomons tightening with every landing, the following month saw the focus switch to eastern New Guinea where the Australians landed at Lae on 3-4 September, while Nadzab saw one of the relatively few airborne landings of the Pacific war on 6 September. The American occupation of Salamaua on 12 September was followed on the 22nd by the Australian landings at Finschhafen, eastern New Guinea. This landing initiated what was for this theater a protracted exchange. A Japanese counterattack was repulsed on 26 September before the Australians moved to occupy Finschhafen on 2 October. This prompted a series of Japanese attacks until 25 October, when the Japanese admitted defeat and evacuated the area. They had read the signs in the Solomons a little earlier and on 20 September completed their evacuation of Vella Lavella and Arundel. Between 23 September and 2 October the Japanese evacuated Kolombangara, where the Americans landed four days later. The latter action provoked the Battle of Vella Lavella, which was really the last drawn battle between the Imperial and U. S. Navies, but no less important was the fact that after 12 October the Americans began their campaign with land-based aircraft aimed at neutralizing and isolating Rabaul.

The whole of the lower Solomons campaign had been conceived and conducted as part of an effort that was to take the Allies to Rabaul, but as the tide of war made its way through the central and into the northern Solomons, this aim changed. The Americans settled on a bypass strategy whereby the enemy was attacked where he was not, his strengths were avoided, and his forces were left “to wither on the vine.” On 27 October there took place the New Zealander landings in the Treasury Islands, and then followed on 1-2 November the American carrier raids over the upper Solomons and the American landings on Bougainville, which induced the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay. In the second half of October the Japanese transferred six carrier air groups to Rabaul to counter the growing American pressure in the upper Solomons, but the raid of 1-2 November, and particularly the raids of 5 and 11 November, had the effect of wrecking Japanese intentions. All the units of a squadron of four heavy cruisers, along with two light cruisers and a destroyer, were badly damaged by carrier aircraft within a matter of minutes of arriving at Rabaul on 5 November, and with the Japanese, in effect, abandoning Rabaul as a naval and air base in mid-November two parts of the American intent came together. The attacks on Rabaul were part of the effort that heralded not only the end of the Solomons campaign but also the start of the U. S. offensive in the central Pacific. With their victory off Cape St. George on 26 November complementing the landings in the Gilbert Islands, the Americans moved into possession of numbers and technique that ensured victory in every individual enterprise. The Japanese claim that during the November 1943 air battles over Rabaul and the upper Solomons they sank ten aircraft carriers, five battleships, nineteen cruisers, seven destroyers, and nine transports prompts incredulity at the fact that such claims were even entertained, much less given credence. In retrospect they seem almost deliberately to be inversely related to reality.

The start of the central Pacific offensive had been foreshadowed by the American carrier raid on Manus (31 August), on the Gilberts (17- 19 September), and on Wake (5-6 October), but if one is obliged to consider the other events relevant to the story then there are four areas of interest that remain to be considered. The first, perhaps naturally, is the north Pacific theater. Here the months that saw growing American success in the southwest Pacific also witnessed American victories that eliminated the Japanese presence in the Aleutians that had been established in June 1942. The only real naval action in this theater, the Battle of the Kommandorskii Islands on 27 March 1943, resulted in the Americans frustrating a Japanese resupply mission to their garrison on Attu. Other than the Battle of the Java Sea, this was the only daylight surface action involving major warship formations of the Pacific war, and it was followed on 11 May by the American landings on Attu. Backed by a massive force that included two battleships, an escort carrier, and seven cruisers, the Americans ensured the collapse of organized resistance on 30 May, the island being declared secure the following day. On 8 June the Japanese high command, recognizing the inevitable, ordered that Kiska be abandoned, and this task was completed on 28 July. In one of the more embarrassing operations of the war American and Canadian forces conducted an assault landing on Kiska on 15 August and fought a series of actions before realizing that the island was deserted. Perhaps the corrective to this singularly sorry state of affairs was the fact that 10 July 1943 witnessed the first American air raid on the Japanese home islands, the Doolittle Raid excepted. The attack, directed against Paramushiru in the Kuriles, was staged by eight B-25 medium bombers operating from Adak via Attu. The last such raid was conducted on 13 August 1945.

Pacific War January-November 1943 Part II

The second and third theaters, again where American air power was so important, were Burma and China. December 1942 saw the start of the British offensive in the Arakan, which was brought to a halt short of Akyab in January 1943. On 18 February 1943 the British embarked on the first Chindit operation, a much-proclaimed undertaking that resulted in the temporary interruption of communications between Mandalay and Myitkyina for only as long as it took the Japanese to organize themselves to meet the two attacks. After two months’ indecisive fighting in front of Akyab, a Japanese counteroffensive in mid-March resulted in the humiliating rout of the equivalent of a British corps by a Japanese division. At the same time the Chindit units were forced to cross the Irrawaddy and to withdraw to India under intense Japanese pressure. In both efforts the British were decisively outfought, but, as is often the case, in victory were the seeds ofJapanese defeat. The fact that the British were able to undertake offensive operations in 1943 after their comprehensive defeat in 1942 prompted the Japanese to consider the possibility of a preventive offensive, a preemptive attack that would forestall a British effort in the 1943-44 campaigning season. Thus, while Chinese forces in northern Burma began an offensive in the Hukwang valley in October 1943 and the following month played host to a second British offensive in the Arakan, the Japanese military settled on “the March on Delhi” that was to end so disastrously at Kohima and Imphal in 1944. This effort compromised the Japanese ability to mount an effective defense of Burma during the November 1944-May 1945 campaigning season.

In the China theater of operations this period saw events that were to be profoundly important in terms of Sino-American relations. The Fourteenth U. S. Air Force was activated on 11 March 1943. The first offensive operation by American aircraft (P-40 fighters) within the China theater was staged on the 16th and the first operation involving bombers was three days later: the targets on both occasions were shipping and installations on the Red River, in French Indo-China. The months of May and June saw a major Japanese raid into western Hupei, and the Japanese withdrawal at its end, deliberately and dishonestly portrayed by the Chinese Nationalists as a major victory, was used by pro-Nationalist and air power lobbies in Washington to support their respective causes. The Tenth U. S. Air Force headquarters at New Delhi, India, began functioning on 20 August while the next day there were the first major air battles in the China theater since 1940-41. These battles were fought over Hangchow, Heng-yang, and Ch’ang-sa, and were followed on 7 October by the first operation by heavy bombers against a target in Burma and on 25 November by the first Fourteenth Air Force raid on Formosa.

By common consent this last operation, against targets in Formosa, represented the point in time when the Japanese high command began to consider seriously a general offensive in central and southern China in 1944. It did so for obvious reasons and with obvious repercussions. The thoughts of the Japanese high command turned to the possibility of a general offensive in central and southern China because it lacked the means to meet and defeat an American bomber offensive: the only counter it could possible employ was the seizing of airstrips from which any such offensive would have to be staged. The implications of this line of reasoning were profound because the Japanese plan, as it took shape, struck at the raw nerve of Sino-American relations.

Much more was at stake at this particular time, in fact, than just relations between Chungking and Washington. These months with which we concern ourselves here, between the end of the Guadalcanal campaign and the landings in the Gilbert Islands (give or take a couple of weeks), saw the Trident Conference in Washington (12-25 May), the Quadrant Conference in Quebec (14-24 August), the first and second Sextant Conferences in Cairo (22-25 November and 4-6 December), and the Eureka Conference in Tehran (28 November-I December). These months also saw profound changes in the European situation. The defeat of German forces in front of Kursk in July 1943 represented the point where possession of the initiative finally passed irrevocably to the Allies, and the landings at Salerno in September 1943 for the U. S. forces thus engaged represented the first invasion of the European mainland by a non-European army since 1354. Herein were matters of no little import, of considerable meaning and significance. But in terms of China, air power, and the United States, the events in eastern Asia, even if they lacked the grandeur of these other changes, were nonetheless crucially important in terms of relations between China and the United States and the conduct of the war against Japan.

The United States found itself at war in December 1941 wedded to the belief that Japan’s defeat had to be total and embrace both the Pacific and the Asian mainland. To this end the Americans were prepared to support China with weaponry, supplies, and money sufficient to ensure the prosecution of the war within that country to the end desired. The Chiang Kai-shek regime at Chungking was eager to play the role of willing recipient of American aid, but it saw as its real priority the civil war against the Communists, which would be resumed once the Japanese were defeated: it had little interest in fulfilling the role that Washington, without consultation, had assigned for it. The American air power lobby, which had come up with the absurd claim that 200 U. S. aircraft based in China could complete Japan’s national defeat, had common cause with Chungking: the air force would do the fighting, and the Chinese would hold the airfields. After May 1943 these two interests-the China and the air power lobbies-held the initiative in Washington and prevailed over the various individuals within the State Department and the military who argued that American policy toward China was nonsensical. The military feared a Japanese offensive, believing that Chiang Kai-shek’s armies, riddled by corruption and incompetence, would fall to pieces, and there were people in the State Department who feared for American interests by being tied to a regime with so little genuine support among the Chinese people. The conflict between these different factions, and the very real crisis in Sino-American relations that the course of events brought to the forefront of national deliberations, had to await the summer of 1944, but for the discerning and the fearful within the American high command the outline of events was there one year beforehand.

The war against Japanese shipping in this third phase of the war, between 1 March and 31 October 1943, Japan’s defeat was already reality because in this period it suffered shipping losses from which there could be no recovery.

Japanese losses reached a disastrous level above 131,500 tons per month without any contribution to losses being made by carrier-based aircraft: between 1 May 1942 and 31 October 1943, aircraft operating from American carriers accounted for just one transport, while the sinkings by warships were also very modest indeed. The point that is relevant is primarily negative, namely, that if Japanese losses were so disastrous in these periods, then the adjective to describe their losses when the carrier force did contribute was likely to prove very elusive. So it was to be, and for a reason that is often not properly appreciated. The Japanese activated the General Escort Command on 15 November 1943, and it is generally held that the Imperial Navy’s creation of this organization, without fully understanding both the principle and detail of convoy and without having sufficient numbers of escorts to properly provide for convoys, meant that it actually worsened the situation: the concentration of Japanese merchantmen in poorly or inadequately protected convoys led to increased losses. That was true, but not until the second half of 1944. The massive increase of Japanese shipping losses between November 1943 and June 1944 was registered primarily not among merchant ships but among naval and military transports in the central Pacific theater, where they were forced to work in waters that were dominated by American carrier aircraft and in which American submarines had concentrated in support of the carrier operations.

The figures tell the story. In the period from 1 March to 31 October 1943 the Japanese lost 109 merchantmen of 376,334 tons, and 160 Army and Navy transports of 676,406 tons: the average monthly loss of shipping of all types other than warships amounted to 33.63 ships of 131,593 tons. In the period from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944 the Japanese lost 154.5 merchantmen of 519,187 tons, a significant quickening of the pace. But in this same eight months, 399.5 Army and Navy transports of 1,782,722 tons were lost, and the average monthly loss of shipping of all types other than warships amounted to 89.25 ships of 287,739 tons. Sinkings by submarines increased significantly, from a total of ninety transports of 477,535 tons from 1 March to 31 October 1943 to a total of 225 transports of 1,081,451 tons from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944; sinkings by carrier aircraft totaled 76.5 naval and military auxiliaries of 420,337 tons. But even more significant were the returns by area. In the period from 1 May 1942 to 28 February 1943 the transport graveyard was, not surprisingly, the southwest Pacific, but from 1 March to 31 October 1943 transport losses were more evenly distributed, with significant numbers in the East China Sea, the central Pacific, the southwest Pacific, and the southern resources area. In the period from 1 November 1943 to 30 June 1944 total transport losses were 379.5 ships of 1,782,722 tons, with 192 of these transports, of 941,769 tons, sunk in the central Pacific theater. What is no less surprising than the central Pacific toll is the fact that Japanese transport and auxiliary losses in the southwest Pacific were greater in this period than they were between March and October 1943, while losses in the southern resources area also reached disastrous levels, a total of 91.5 naval and military ships of 452,201 tons being lost.

An A-20 Havoc flown by 1Lt. John Soloc pulls up after his attack on the Japanese transport Taiyei Maru. (National Archives)

During the Second World War the United States produced more than one hundred fleet, light fleet, and escort carriers, and the Kaiser yard launched its fiftieth one year and one day after launching its first. In 1943 the United States was building ten destroyers and destroyer escorts to everyone launched by Japanese yards, but this modest level of construction on the part of Japan was achieved only at the cost of maintaining the merchant marine. In short, Japan could build merchantmen or warships, or it could build some merchantmen and refit and repair others, or it could build warships. What it could not do was undertake all three on any scale, and the Japanese efforts were utterly inadequate and unavailing. By war’s end the American advantage of numbers was overwhelming, and the basis of this numerical superiority was to be found in 1942-43.

In the American and Japanese national aircraft industries the situation with respect to comparative production was the same as that in the shipyards: the United States out built Japan by four to one in aircraft, by nearly seven to one in aircraft engines, and by nearly eight to one in airframe weight. In terms of individual aircraft the basic picture repeated itself. In the course of the Pacific war, Japan produced ninety different types of combat aircraft while the United States produced only eighteen, and, even more significant, in 1943 American factories put out more aircraft than did Japan in the whole of the war. The total number of A6M Zekes (excluding trainers and seaplane derivatives) was (depending on the source) between 10,094 and 11,283, while the United States built 12,272 F6F Hellcats and 12,681 F4U Corsairs. Japanese factories produced 2,446 G4M Bettys while American plants put into the air 9,816 B-25 Mitchells and 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses. The latter aircraft was withdrawn from the Pacific theater during 1943 and concentrated its efforts thereafter in Europe, but the B-24 Liberator, with its longer range, continued to serve in the Pacific. With the G5N Shinzan the Japanese had an aircraft that compared very closely to the Liberator in terms of speed, range, defensive firepower, and payload. American factories produced 18,188 B-24 Liberators of all variants. It would be wrong to give Shinzan production in terms of Japanese factories: the entire national output amounted to only six aircraft. Conversely, at peak, in March 1944, American factories were building an aircraft every 294 seconds.

More examples of this disparity could be given, but to no real effect: the situations in the shipyards and aircraft factories serve as indicators of national strengths, and the use of further examples would not add much in terms of explanation of events. Suffice it to note just one matter: that in initiating a war with the United States that Japan knew that it could not win but which it reasoned could be drawn on account of the higher commitment of its people to war, the Japanese high command made one critical error. Clausewitz’s words are worth repeating: “the first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgment which the Statesman and General exercises is rightly to understand [the nature of] the War in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make of it something, which it is not … and it is impossible for it to be.” And herein lay the Japanese error. If war is a political phenomenon, then it follows that its most important elements are political rather than military or material, but political elements cannot offset material or military deficiencies or imbalances that are too severe. This was the reality that Japan faced in November 1943. For almost two years the United States had found that it had to fight the war in which it found itself as it found it, and not as it would, but by November 1943 the nation, backed by the resources of a continental land mass, was in a position to start to wage the war as it would, and to that Japan had no answer. In part, possession of the initiative had served Japan well in deflecting the United States from its main aspirations, but by November 1943 the advantage that had been Japan’s on account of its earlier victories had been spent. From this time, what awaited Japan was the reckoning.

A Henrician Military Revolution?

D. E. Showalter commented that “The image made familiar by Ferdinand Lot and Sir Charles Oman, of medieval warfare as featuring limited discipline, simple tactics, and no strategy at all, has given way to a growing appreciation of the complexity of military operations between the eighth and the sixteenth centuries.” – `Caste, Skill, and Training: The Evolution of Cohesion in European Armies from the Middle Ages to the Sixteenth Century’

G. Phillips, Anglo-Scots Wars, p. 257. However, this relative tactical sophistication did not go unnoticed by contemporaries. The commander of Italian auxiliaries supporting English operations around Boulogne, between 1544 and 1546, ordered the production of diagrams demonstrating how the English were arrayed. On observing how the shot were located behind the defensive line of pikemen, Giovacchino inquired of his English counterpart why he had formed his men in such a fashion. It was explained to him “that the pikemen stoop while the shot fired over their heads.” J. R. Hale, `On a Tudor Parade Ground’, RWS, p. 267. Here then England was clearly engaged in wider European `military conversations’ exchanging ideas with their continental counterparts. By the 1540s the English were not only aware of and employing new `pike and shot’ formations, but were innovating in their own right, with enough success that foreign commanders thought their ideas worthy of diagrammatic notation.

Henry’s England demonstrated an ability to learn from, and retain lessons from one campaign or engineering project to the next. This was facilitated by a civil-military partnership of nobles, garrison-troops, engineers, artisans, administrators and foreign specialists. This was not a standing army or indeed military professionalism as we now know it, but it did demonstrate a degree of `institutional memory’ and a drive for efficiency and modernity. Luke MacMahon recently echoed the findings of this thesis in stating that although it can “hardly be disputed,” that many Tudor soldiers “lacked experience and expertise.(but).there was also present useful numbers of men with considerable military experience and skill, capable of providing a functional command structure.”

The long historiographical tradition that painted a picture of military stagnation in the reign of Henry VIII can now be discarded. Rather the second Tudor was firmly committed to military modernisation, to the integration of hackbutt, longbow, cannon, bill and pike. This was not a radical revolution, old methods were not abandoned, rather they were adapted to operate in cooperation with new military technologies and the new tactical systems being forged in the Italian wars. One can only conjecture as to Henry VIII’s earliest impressions of gunpowder weaponry but the commitment shown to `new technologies’ by his father was surely influential in shaping the younger Tudors’ curiosity “about matters of this kind. “The role of Henry VII in shaping his martial inclination has perhaps been obscured by now increasingly shaky historical assessments of the first Tudor’s pacifism. Recent revisions have instead shown him to be no pacifist. Rather “in war in Brittany, France and Scotland he attempted to live up to the martial reputation of his predecessors and underline his royal authority through success in war.”

This martial vigour was augmented by a commitment to modern military techniques, most evident in the meaningful establishment of an English ordnance and artillery manufacturing industry in the late 1480s. From this perspective considerable continuity is identifiable between Henry VII and Henry VIII and the improvements to the military establishment here described in the period 1509- 1523 can be seen as part of a process of gradual evolution. English troops would not again be engaged on the continent until the 1540s, during which decade they fully mastered and embraced many of the techniques they had been experimenting with throughout the reign.

Gervase Phillips has convincingly identified an “adaptive pattern of military development,” within which “strong connections with the tactical practice of preceding centuries,” were maintained. As Phillips astutely pointed out, the idea of an “early modern military revolution rests on the belief that medieval warfare was a deeply primitive affair… this… is a modernists conceit.” Phillips identified the `grand strategies’ employed in the execution of the Crusades against the Latin East, the responses of military architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to improving siege engines (e. g. the trebuchet) and indeed the large and tactically competent forces that often constituted the medieval army. Phillips’ model repeatedly emphasised continuity between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, “firearms… did not revolutionise warfare but slotted neatly into existing tactical systems.”

One cannot escape the relative merits of what one might term the `evolutionary model’ of military development. Throughout the early modern, and indeed medieval, period, continuity appears to be the dominant theme – as opposed to any sudden revolutionary change – in continental military practice. Such a view, for the period 1494-1559, was recently endorsed by J. Black who concluded that a “consideration of the warfare of the period suggests that `military adaptation’ is a more appropriate term than revolution.” This new approach is most clearly evident in contemporary reflections on the Italian wars. The French descent into Italy, in 1494, had long been held up as marking the differentiation between medieval and early modern warfare, however the relevance of this periodisation has come in for increasing criticism. 91 Thus “rather than arguing that firearms revolutionised warfare, it is important to focus on the way in which they slotted into existing tactical systems.”

At first glance these conclusions find resonance with those of M. Prestwich who noted that “many of the elements considered to typify the early modern military revolution also featured in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century: the increased size of armies, elaborate supply arrangements, complex strategy and effective tactics.” However, Prestwich added the important caveat that:

Although this weakens the case for the early modern military revolution, it does not make an alternative case for gradual steady evolution. Rather, it demonstrates that in different periods, when similar problems presented themselves, closely comparable solutions were developed. Change was not even paced.

R. I. Frost, in his excellent appreciation of The Northern Wars, came to a sympathetic conclusion for the period 1558-1721, wherein “what took place was a series of individual military revolutions, not one Military Revolution.” For Frost, like Prestwich, the “course and timing of change,” was context-specific and “although the process of change was essentially evolutionary, in every case there was a critical point which can be seen as the definitive breakthrough of a new military system.”

The difference between Frost and Phillips is only one of nuance, but this in itself is significant when constructing models of military change. The conclusions of Frosts’ regional study find striking resonance with the pattern of military development and maturation here identified in Tudor England. Employing Frost’s paradigm, the period 1509-23 was essentially a period of evolutionary change, while the 1540s can be seen to have represented, for England, the `critical point’.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a satisfactory compromise will ever be reached between the proponents of `revolutionary’ and `evolutionary’ change to the nature of early modern European warfare. Although it is certainly safe to conclude that the `military revolution’ can now no longer be understood in its original context. Roberts’ `definitive model’ appears flawed in the light of recent revisions. To historians and social scientists alike the term `revolution’ has developed a plethora of interpretations, and indeed `definitive definitions’. Nevertheless, to most of us, it still denotes a `violent change’ to the status quo, normally over a relatively short period. Therein lies the problem with attaching the label, `revolution’, to military developments over time. Nevertheless, `revolution’ has become synonymous with the military history of Europe in the early modern period. Roberts’ original model spanned over one hundred years, a period which in itself seems so long as to negate the application of the term `revolution.’ Moreover, recent revisions have extended the `military revolution’ to such an extent, in some cases spanning over three centuries, that there seems very little revolutionary in the model whatsoever. The term is highly subjective; who is to say the development of the trace italienne fortification was any more revolutionary than the crossbow before it, the flintlock or later the bayonet? The application of the term `revolutionary’ immediately gives added significance to the item to which it is attached – often without sufficient corroborative evidence. In the face of these problems what are we left with? Is the military revolution debate thus left bankrupt? Is it simply an academics’ paper chase? This, it seems, would be to go too far. The military revolution debate, like any other form of historical classification has provided a necessary and thought-provoking framework. However the profusion of alternative interpretations has ensured the concept now bears little resemblance to any reasonable definition of a revolution. It seems fair to conclude that the original notion of an early modern European `military revolution’ is now defunct.

 Pike and Shot Campaigns