Two Epic Battles With Big Lessons for America Today

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two superb works of history fascinated me in 2018, each of which provides significant lessons as we seek to understand the complex international world we face today. 

The first is “On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir in the Korean War's Greatest Battle,” by Hampton Sides. It’s a story of heroism, struggle and resilience in the face of brutal winter conditions and a relentless enemy. It should remind us of the terrible cost of war generally, but specifically of the potential nightmare of another war on that troubled peninsula. It also is a cautionary tale of the disastrous consequences of misreading Chinese intent and mindset.

Sides (author of the excellent “Into the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette”) tells the story of a pivotal battle in a war that has largely slipped away from public consciousness. In the late fall of 1950, a Chinese force of 120,000, responding to General Douglas MacArthur’s ill-considered invasion of the north, surprised a Marine force of 30,000 at the Chosin Reservoir. In a battle lasting just over two weeks, the Marines performed heroically and managed to break out of encirclement, killing tens of thousands of Chinese as they retreated — but it was a near-run outcome. Sides manages to evoke the terrible weather, the danger of annihilation and the bravery of the U.S. troops. He also captures the seemingly willful foolishness of the ego-driven supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur, whose failure to appreciate Chinese will and determination nearly led to catastrophe. We would risk facing the same resoluteness if we went to war in China’s backyard today.

My other book is “In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown,” by the historian Nathaniel Philbrick (author of “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”). Philbrick chronicles the final major battle of the American Revolution in the fall of 1781, in which a U.S. and French military and naval force overcame the British army, leading to the independence of the colonies. George Washington is often underrated as a military commander, but he and his French compatriots — notably the Admiral Comte de Grasse — showed brilliance in deducing that their keys to victory would be the solidity of their alliance and a powerful naval force in the Chesapeake.

The first lesson for us today is the vital importance of allies, partners, and friends in the world — even for our uniquely powerful nation. It is one that Donald Trump, so often dismissive of America’s closest friends, would do well to heed. Second, as has so often been the case in world events, control of the seas is crucial to important geostrategic outcomes. Yorktown is another reminder that big doors can swing on seemingly small hinges.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

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