America's 5 Greatest Military Victories, and 5 Most Shocking Defeats

The invasion of Normandy and The Battle of Midway in WWII are among the greatest US Military victories of all time

The American military is clearly the most dominant force on the planet--maybe the most lethal ever. Armed with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, submarines, a fleet of drones and a massive army and air force, it would win in almost any circumstance--at least on paper. But that has not always been the case, and sometimes not even being the best in the world can crush a committed foe who will stop at nothing to win in combat. 

So what were some of America’s biggest military victories? What ranks as the worst losses? Below, Dr. Robert Farley, in a series of two articles combined into one post for your reading pleasure, gives us his picks.

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Nations often linger on their military defeats as long as, or longer than, they do on their successes. The Battle of Kosovo remains the key event of the Serbian story, and devastating military defeats adorn the national narratives of France, Russia and the American South. What are the biggest disasters in American military history, and what effect have they had on the United States?

----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----

In this article, I concentrate on specific operational and strategic decisions, leaving aside broader, grand-strategic judgments that may have led the United States into ill-considered conflicts. The United States may well have erred politically in engaging in the War of 1812, World War I [3], the Vietnam War [4] and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but here I consider how specific failures worsened America’s military and strategic position.

Invasion of Canada: 

At the opening of the War of 1812, U.S. forces invaded Upper and Lower Canada [5]. Americans expected a relatively easy going; the notion that Canada represented the soft underbelly of the British empire had been popular among American statesmen for some time. Civilian and military leaders alike expected a quick capitulation, forced in part by the support of the local population. But Americans overestimated their support among Canadians, overestimated their military capabilities, and underestimated British power. Instead of an easy victory, the British handed the Americans a devastating defeat.

American forces (largely consisting of recently mobilized militias) prepared to invade Canada on three axes of advance, but did not attack simultaneously and could not support one another. American forces were inexperienced at fighting against a professional army and lacked good logistics. This limited their ability to concentrate forces against British weak points. The Americans also lacked a good backup plan for the reverses that the British soon handed them. None of the American commanders (led by William Hull, veteran of the Revolutionary War) displayed any enthusiasm for the fight, or any willingness to take the risks necessary to press advantages.

The real disaster of the campaign became apparent at Detroit in August, when a combined British and Native American army forced Hull to surrender, despite superior numbers. The British followed up their victory by seizing and burning several American frontier outposts, although they lacked the numbers and logistical tail to probe very deeply into American territory. The other two prongs of the invasion failed to march much beyond their jumping off points. American forces won several notable successes later in the war, restoring their position along the border, but never effectively threatened British Canada.

The failure of the invasion turned what Americans had imagined as an easy, lucrative offensive war into a defensive struggle. It dealt a major setback to the vision, cherished by Americans, of a North America completely under the domination of the United States. Britain would hold its position on the continent, eventually ensuring the independence of Canada from Washington.

Battle of Antietam

In September 1862, Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland [6] with the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s objectives were to take advantage of foraging opportunities (the movement of armies across Virginia had left the terrain devastated), support a revolt in Maryland and potentially inflict a serious defeat on Union forces. Unfortunately for Lee, information about his battle disposition fell into the hands of General George McClellan, who moved to intercept with the much larger Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln saw this as an opportunity to either destroy or badly maul Lee’s army.

The Battle of Antietam resulted in 22,000 casualties, making it the bloodiest day in the history of the Americas. Despite massive numbers, a good working knowledge of Lee’s dispositions and a positional advantage, McClellan failed to inflict a serious defeat on the Confederates. Lee was able to withdraw in good order, suffering higher proportional casualties, but maintaining the integrity of his force and its ability to retreat safely into Confederate territory.

McClellan probably could not have destroyed the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam (19th-century armies were devilishly difficult to annihilate, given the technology available), but he could have dealt it a far more serious setback. He vastly overestimated the size of Lee’s force, moved slowly to take advantage of clear opportunities and maintained poor communications with his subcommanders. A greater success at Antietam might have spared the Army of the Potomac the devastation of Fredericksburg, where Union forces launched a pointless direct assault against prepared Confederate positions.

Antietam was not a complete failure; the Army of Northern Virginia was hurt, and McClellan forced Lee out of Maryland. President Lincoln felt confident enough following the battle to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free slaves in rebellious states. Nevertheless, Antietam represented the best opportunity that the Union would have to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, which remained one of the Confederacy’s centers of gravity until 1865.

Operation Drumbeat: 

On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Germany’s treaty obligations to Japan did not require action in case of Japanese attack, but Germany nevertheless decided to make formal the informal war that it had been fighting with the United States in the Atlantic. Historically, this has been regarded as one of Hitler’s major blunders. At the time, however, it gave German submariners their first opportunity to feast upon American coastal shipping [7].

In the first six months of 1942, the U-boat force commanded by Admiral Doenitz deployed into the littoral of the eastern seaboard. The Germans had observed some restraint prior to Pearl Harbor in order to avoid incurring outright U.S. intervention. This ended with the Japanese attack. The German U-boats enjoyed tremendous success, as none of the U.S. Army Air Force, the U.S. Navy, or American civil defense authorities were well prepared for submarine defense. Coastal cities remained illuminated, making it easy for U-boat commanders to pick targets. Fearing a lack of escorts (as well as irritation on the part of the U.S. business community), the U.S. Navy (USN) declined to organize coastal shipping into convoys. The USN and U.S. Army Air Force, having fought bitterly for years, had not prepared the cooperative procedures necessary for fighting submarines.

The results were devastating. Allied shipping losses doubled from the previous year, and remained high throughout 1942. German successes deeply worried the British, such that they quickly dispatched advisors to the United States to help develop a concerted anti-submarine doctrine. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was (and is) immensely complicated, requiring a great deal of coordination and experience to pull off correctly. The United States had neither worked diligently on the problem prior to the war, nor taken the time to learn from the British. However, the USN would make good its mistake later in the war, developing into a very effective ASW force, and deploying its own submarines to great effect [8] against the Japanese.

Across the Partition, 1950: 

Following the successful defense of Pusan, and the stunning victory on the beaches of Inchon, the United States Army and Marine Corps, with support of Republic of Korea forces, marched deep into North Korea in an effort to destroy the Pyongyang regime and turn over full control of the Korean Peninsula to Seoul. The United States saw a counteroffensive as an opportunity to roll back Communist gains in the wake of the Chinese Revolution, and punish the Communist world for aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

This was an operational and strategic disaster. As American forces approached the Chinese border on two widely divergent (and mutually unsupportable) axes, Chinese forces massed in the mountains of North Korea. Beijing’s diplomatic warnings became increasingly shrill, but fresh off the victory at Inchon, few in the United States paid any attention. China was impoverished and militarily weak, while the Soviet Union had displayed no taste for direct intervention.

When the Chinese counterattacked [9] in November 1950, they threw back U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces with huge loss of life on both sides. For a time, it appeared that the People’s Liberation Army’s counteroffensive might completely rout United Nation forces. Eventually, however, the lines stabilized around what is now the Demilitarized Zone.

This failure had many fathers. While General Douglas MacArthur pushed most aggressively for a decisive offensive, he had many friends and supporters in Congress. President Truman made no effort to restrain MacArthur until the magnitude of the disaster became apparent. U.S. intelligence lacked a good understanding of either Chinese aims or Chinese capabilities. The invasion resulted in two more years of war, in which neither China, nor the United States could budge the other very far from the 38th parallel. It also poisoned U.S.-Chinese relations for a generation.

Disbanding the Iraqi Army: 

On May 23, 2003, Paul Bremer (chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority) ordered the Iraqi Army to disband. It is difficult to overstate the unwise nature of this decision. We don’t need hindsight [10]; it was, as many recognized, a terrible decision at the time. In a moment, swept aside was the entirety of Iraqi military history, including the traditions and communal spirit of the finest Iraqi military formations. Eradicated was the best means for managing the sectors of Iraqi society most likely to engage in insurgent activity.

It’s not hard to see the logic of the decision. The Iraqi Army was deeply implicated in the Baathist power structure that had dominated Iraq for decades. Many of its officers had committed war crimes, often against other Iraqis. It was heavily tilted towards the Sunnis, with few Shia or Kurds in positions of responsibility. Finally, it had, from the American perspective, a recent history of appallingly poor military performance. As Bremer argued, it had largely dissolved in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But this was not how many Iraqis viewed the army. The Royal Iraqi Army had come into existence in the early 1920s, when Iraq remained a protectorate of the British Empire. It had revolted in 1941, but the British made the wise decision to keep the force together so as to maintain order. In 1948, its units fought against Israeli forces during the wars of Israeli independence, and it participated in the 1967 war, if briefly. In the 1980s, it waged an eight-year struggle against Iran. While its legacy was complex, for many Iraqis, service in the Army (and in particular its performance against Iran) remained a source of personal and national pride. Eradicated was eighty years of institutional history.

It’s impossible to say how the reconstruction of the Iraqi Army might have played out differently, but then it’s difficult to imagine how it could have been worse. The Iraqi Army has consistently failed in the most elementary of military tasks when not directly supported by American forces. It remains unpopular in broad sectors of Iraqi society, and its performance against lightly armed ISIS fighters has made it the laughingstock of the region.

Conclusion: 

American military failures have undoubtedly had an impact on the country’s strategic position, but have yet to fundamentally undercut national power. The United States recovered quickly from Operation Drumbeat, Antietam, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the defeat in Korea.

National greatness depends on more than simply victory in battle, as the persistence of U.S. power suggests. Nevertheless, each of these avoidable defeats proved costly to the United States—in blood, treasure and time.

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Is there an American way of war? The question evokes deep controversy, not least because for a very long time, Americans considered themselves an exceptionally peaceful nation. Even into the twentieth century, American presidents boasted about the nation’s aversion to war and defense expenditures.

But even during the period in which the United States openly embraced pacifism, its military forces won some remarkable victories. This article examines five great American victories, spanning from 1780 until 1944. We’re looking for neither technically impressive victories (although most of these are), nor predictable thrashings. With one major exception, these battles did not turn on chance or on the need for remarkable heroism (although such heroism was always present). Instead, these successes came at the end of well-conceived and executed campaigns, designed to integrate the elements of national power into a strategic victory. We’re looking at how the United States built a series of advantages that led inexorably to victory, even if the outcome sometimes remained in doubt until the final play.

Battle of Yorktown: 

The Battle of Saratoga [11] decisively ended British attempts to subdue the northern colonies. Although British forces remained in control of certain critical areas (including especially New York City), the focus of British attention turned south. British commanders hoped to rally loyalists, and perhaps to fully detach the southern colonies from the rebellion. British forces won several major victories, although colonial resistance continued and the loyalist recruits never appeared in the anticipated numbers.

In early 1781, Lord Charles Cornwallis led an invasion of Virginia, in an effort to cut off rebel forces in the south from their sources of supply. Blundering, bad communication, and poor command relationships on the British side led Cornwallis to occupy Yorktown, while waiting for outside support. Yorktown was defensible, but could also be easily cut off through the effective combination of naval and ground power. Washington and Lafayette saw the opportunity for a major victory, and moved quickly to take advantage. The French and the colonials executed a series of moves that required exceedingly complex planning, especially given the communications technology of the day.

The siege of Yorktown began on September 28, 1781, and ended with Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, after the Royal Navy failed to break through. Opponents of the war in the British government quickly took advantage of Cornwallis’ defeat, and peace negotiations soon ensued.

After Great Britain failed to subdue the colonies in the North, some form of eventual independence became extremely likely. The details of that independence, however, depended on the military situation at the conclusion of the peace. The decisive victory of the Continental Army at Yorktown meant that Britain could not prosecute the war in the south with any hope of success, and that rebel recapture of other outposts was just a matter of time.

Battle of Mexico City:

In the spring of 1846, the United States determined, on the flimsiest of pretexts, to appropriate for itself a third of the territory of its only independent neighbor in North America. The United States had recently annexed Texas, and sought to acquire further territories in New Mexico and California.

Early U.S. operations seized key points and won several major battles along the Texas-Mexico border and in California, but Mexico refused to capitulate or negotiate, and Mexican forces had sufficient maneuver space to avoid contact with major U.S. formations. Consequently, success depended on forcing Mexico to accept a political settlement by forcing its most powerful armies to defend it critical national assets.

The campaign to take Mexico City began with an amphibious landing at Veracruz, In early March 1847, Winfield Scott [12] landed with a force of 12,000 men that included many of what would become the luminaries of the Civil War. Scott’s army forced the surrender of the sizable Mexican garrison, and then occupied the city. Scott judged Mexico City to be the center of gravity for the Santa Ana government, and expected that the Mexicans would fight for it.

Scott was correct. American forces marched west into Mexico’s interior, winning a bloody fight against Santa Ana’s forces in the approaches to Puebla, before capturing the city on May 1. By the beginning of August, Scott had occupied the high ground around Mexico City. In early September, U.S. forces stormed the city, capturing the Mexican capital. Although engagements continued for several months after the conquest, Mexican forces never seriously threatened to evict Scott, and Mexico eventually agreed to enormous territorial concessions.

While we might be tempted to reflect on the justice of the war, there’s no question that victory in the Mexican-American War fundamentally redrew the map of North America. The United States acquired vast, thinly populated territories that extended all the way to the Pacific, while Mexico lost nearly a third of its territory. It would be some time before the United States could settle this territory (although statehood for California came quickly), but in purely territorial terms it represents one of the most successful wars of the nineteenth century.

Battle of Vicksburg: 

The Battle of Vicksburg [13] was the culmination of a six-month Union campaign to seize the most important remaining Confederate fortress on the Mississippi. The great river system represented both an important Confederate asset, and a serious vulnerability. Control of the river allowed communication between the eastern and western Confederate states, as well as easy north-south movement. In Union hands, however, the river represented a highway into the bowels of the Confederacy.

The operation came primarily under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, along with his deputy, Major General William T. Sherman. Over a six-month period, Grant and Sherman seized the initiative in the theater of operations, maneuvering and fighting their way across swampy, inhospitable terrain. The operation was as much a triumph of logistical planning and engineering as a victory of pure arms, with the central Union challenge involving the safe transit of troops to the vicinity of the city.

On May 18, 1863, Grant trapped the out-maneuvered Confederates in Vicksburg itself. The siege of Vicksburg lasted forty-six days, with the defenders (led by Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton) surrendering on July 4.

Vicksburg confirmed Union control of the Mississippi, meaning that Union forces could prevent the western Confederacy from supporting the east. It also confirmed the ascendance of Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman to the senior ranks of Union commanders.

It left the underbelly of the Confederacy open to attack by Union armies, and gave thousands of slave the opportunity to make their way to Union lines. Lee recovered from his defeat at Gettysburg, and the armies of the Confederacy remained viable for two more years, especially in the east. Vicksburg, however, fatally undercut the national unity of the Confederacy, and its ability to manage its own territory.

Battle of Midway

In the first six months of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had accomplished nearly every strategic task that it had set for itself. The IJN had facilitated the seizure the Dutch East Indies, Indochina, Malaya and Singapore; it had destroyed the major units of the Royal Navy in the Far East, and ranged deep into the Indian Ocean; and it had devastated Dutch, Australian, American and British naval strength at engagements from Pearl Harbor to Java Sea.

The most important remaining task was the destruction of the carriers of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The Pearl Harbor attack had damaged or destroyed most of the battleship force, but the three carriers of the Pacific Fleet were on other missions. These carriers would soon be supported by three more, although USS Lexington was lost at the Battle of Coral Sea, which also damaged USS Yorktown and HIJMS Shokaku.

Imperial Japanese Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to attempt to draw out the USN by invading Midway, a small island roughly equidistant between Japan and the United States. If taken, Midway could provide a submarine base capable of supporting attacks on U.S. shipping. The main objective, however, was the destruction of the U.S. fleet.

Apprised of Japanese movements because of code breaking, Nimitz decided to commit his remaining carriers, including the battered USS Yorktown, despite the expected Japanese superiority. Nimitz had two advantages. First, U.S. intelligence had a much better command of Japanese dispositions than vice versa. The IJN expected the American carriers to come out and play, but didn’t have a sense of when and where they would attack. Second, the vast fleet of carriers, cruisers and battleships rolling off American production lines gave Nimitz the luxury to engage in risk acceptant behaviors.

The battle resulted in a devastating American victory. Japan lost four fleet carriers to American dive-bombers, and the Combined Fleet withdrew from Midway without attempting an invasion. The USN lost only one carrier (USS Yorktown). Japan continued its offensive in other areas, but the presumptive superiority of the IJN was broken. Japan and the United States would shortly thereafter descend into the bitter slog of Guadalcanal, a campaign of attrition that unavoidably favored the greater resources of the United States.

Midway may not have won the war; Japan continued to fight for three more years, and was probably at the limit of its offensive sphere in any case. Still, it represented a key inflection point of the Pacific War, squaring the score and giving the initiative to the United States.

Operation Overlord: 

On June 6, 1944, the United States and the United Kingdom led a coalition of Allied countries in the invasion of German-controlled France. The operation, painstakingly planned for months (and prepared for even longer) brought U.S. forces into direct conflict with the Wehrmacht in decisive terms, allowing its defeat in the West and facilitating the collapse of Nazi Germany.

Overlord was not a solely American operation [14], by any standards. The United Kingdom [15] was an equal partner, and both Canada and Poland made big contributions. Nevertheless, it represented a culmination of the industrial, logistical and intellectual contributions of the United States to the Western alliance, and was made possible by the unique combination of American industrial and military might.

Preparations for Overlord began in mid-1943. Over the next year, the United States and Great Britain would accumulate a massive ground force in southern England, supported by a huge tactical air force and a flotilla of warships and landing craft. When the Allies struck across a broad front in Normandy, German defenders caused significant casualties, but failed to turn back the attack.

Although the Germans managed to keep the Allies hemmed in for about a month, American forces broke out in late July. With forces able to maneuver in France, the Germans had no hope of putting up an effective defense. In December 1944, the Wehrmacht launched a surprise, last-ditch offensive against Allied forces in the Ardennes forest. The offensive was intended to drive to the sea, splitting Allied forces in two and forcing the Western Allies to come to terms with Nazi Germany. Successful American resistance at Bastogne halted the German advance, ending the last opportunity for Germany to affect the course of the war.

Conclusion

America is quintessentially modern, and success in modern warfare depends on much more than deeds of heroic valor. Those deeds are undeniably part of victory, but they require context; the ability to aggregate the tools of national power behind a singular purpose.

Since the Revolutionary War, the greatest American military successes have depended on careful, long-range planning, the organization of assets and the commitment to overwhelming the enemy. The American genius for war, to the extent that it exists, lies in the ability to build advantage so that genius, heroism and chance on the battlefield don’t need to play decisive roles. The tactical battlefield is nothing like a chessboard, but the operational and strategic fields sure are, and American commanders have proven to be exceedingly adept players.

----This Story Was Originally Published in The National Interest----

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