Surprising Warfare

Posted on September 16, 2018


Surprise has always been one of the determining ingredients in any battle or war.

We can go back to Biblical times when David and Goliath met up on the field of battle. The Philistines were most assuredly surprised by the short fight they witnessed between their giant champion and the shrimp Hebrew shepherd boy with a sling.

Before the airplane, there were marching and wheeling armies, or slow-moving warships, usually in plain sight of each other before battles. Yet surprise was important and it was a tactic not to be despised. Ask the Hessians surprised on the day after Christmas, 1777, at Trenton by George Washington’s Continentals.

“Surprise, guess who’s here!”

It was a quick and stunning victory for Washington’s small army, reeling from a series of defeats, and it restored morale and gave the patriots a great boost in the American Revolution.

With the coming of the airplane and its quick integration into battles during the First World War, surprise came harder to come by, since the little planes buzzing around the battlefields had a view of the scenes never available before.

The Second World War, for the U. S., at any rate, started with a big surprise: Pearl Harbor. Although brilliant American cryptographers had broken the Japanese diplomatic code and knew the Japanese were up to something, few thought the Japanese would do what they did, launch a surprise aerial assault on the entire American Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was a bold, audacious strategy meant to flatten American naval forces in the Pacific and win the Japanese time to complete their conquests of much of Asia.

But surprises work both ways. The Japanese certainly surprised the Americans, but the American carriers—the backbone of modern naval warfare as it evolved in the Pacific theater—were out to sea when the Japanese planes struck.

When Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s little squadron of sixteen B-25 light bombers struck Tokyo on April 18, 1942, they really surprised the Japanese who felt pretty invulnerable in their home islands. And the B-25s were launched off the American carrier Hornet, one of the several carriers the Japanese missed at Pearl Harbor.

My war was the Vietnam War. I don’t remember a lot of surprises from that war, except perhaps for the Tet Offensive of 1968 when the North Vietnamese and Vietcong pulled out all the stops in their determination to bring the war to a conclusion. While the Americans were not defeated and did not leave, the Tet offensive nonetheless undermined the will to fight in the U. S.

Today’s wars or possible wars are on Jihadist terrorists, on rogue nuclear powers or nuclear wannabes (read N. Korea and Iran, for examples), and even possibly on our old Cold War adversaries, the Russians.

The big surprise of the twenty-first century was 9/11. It stunned us, like Pearl Harbor shocked our fathers and grandfathers.

While we eliminated the master plotter of 9/11—Osama Bin Laden—and certainly surprised him, the undeclared war on Islamic terrorists drags on.

What surprises are left?

Can we win any of these conflicts with a stunning surprise, or series of surprises, short of the really big, and horrific, surprise we can use but so far have chosen not to, a nuclear strike? And the question becomes: strike who? The Iranians? The Syrian chemical weapons masterminds and their shops?

Could we live with the massive loss of life, the “collateral damage” now part of our lexicon, bandied about by television newscasters as common as the latest baseball scores?

Israel will surely use their nuclear strike capability if they determine that the peoples around them are on the verge of destroying the Jewish state. One Hitler and one Holocaust is enough in the history of humankind. The Israelis will not hesitate to surprise their enemies with preemptive strikes.

What surprises do we have in our stockpile of ideas, strategies, and weapons that we have not yet seen?

Can the weak prevail this time against the apparently strong, and so turn conventional wisdom on its head? It’s been done in the past.

There’s an old adage that the generals who lose wars still fight the old wars, employing old strategies, and relying on experience rather than innovation.

Part of the genius of the American people is inventiveness and ingenuity. Let’s bring those to the fore in defense of a civilization—ours—based on freedom and liberty, more precious than any other secular virtues that man has ever embraced.





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Posted in: History, War