Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hiroshima!, Hiroshima!, Hiroshima!

As the shattered remnants of Lee's assault on the Union positions at Gettysburg fell back across the fields toward Seminary Ridge, the Federal troops on Cemetery Ridge stood up from behind the stone wall and chanted, "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg!" Their commanders had learned a critical lesson--one that Lee had taught them less than seven months previous.

In December of 1862 the Army of the Potomac was moving south through Northern Virginia with the plan to seize the Confederate capital, Richmond. Union delays caused by failure to secure a crossing site on the Rappahannock River opposite the town of Fredericksburg allowed Lee to fortify Marye's heights above the river. When the Union forces finally did assault across the 600 yard wide plain leading up to the town, they were slaughtered by massed artillery and small arms fire from Confederate troops forces behind a stone wall. The carnage that claimed nearly 13,000 Union soldiers caused Lee to remark, "It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it." The date was December 13th, 1862--one hundred and forty-six years ago, today.

Inexplicably, Lee, at Gettysburg, replicated the Union mistake of attacking a fortified position with massed formations across an open field in what is remembered as Pickett's Charge. He had witnessed first hand, had inflicted personally, the decisive defeat the lesson from which was indelibly written into the Union psyche. And yet, Lee seemingly learned a different lesson from his successes in the first year of the war. He believed, as Napoleon had said, that "the moral is to the physical as three to one." In other words, Lee believed that the morale and fighting spirit of his men would overwhelm any defense.

Is there a lesson for our nation in this historical review? I think there is. Out of the carnage of the Second World War, American industry emerged the world leader. For twenty years our cars and consumer goods ruled the world. We believed it was because our stuff was better than the rest of the world's. It was, but only because the rest of the industrialized world was in ruins from strategic bombing and razing invasion. We belittled Japanese made goods--"Made in Japan" was a term of derision when I was a kid. Our automobile industry, in particular, believed that it would be unassailable for at least a half century post-war. They learned the wrong lessons from their dominance on the economic battlefield.

When Burnside, the Union commander at Fredericksburg, and the other incompetent generals that followed him in command were finally replaced by Grant, the Union Army internalized the hard-learned lessons of fighting Lee and the Confederates, and made the physical and philosophical adjustments necessary to overcome the initial martial advantage enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia. While Southern forces largely continued to fight with equipment and organizational structure with which they began the war, the Union Army and Navy embraced relatively radical improvements in armament and tactics and by 1864 had the premier fighting force not only on the North American continent, but indeed had no peer in the entire world. The American industrial experience is analogous to what transpired in the ranks of the Army of the Confederacy. The Rebel Army enjoyed the initial advantage of having the majority of the American Army's pre-war leadership on its side, owing to the military option being more attractive to men from an agrarian background than an industrial one. Succession left the Union Army leadership ranks decimated as initial Confederate battlefield victories showed. Southern leaders mistook those successes for some sort of inherent qualitative measure of Southern manhood over Yankee manhood. American car makers made the same mistake in judging their success in the post--WWII market. In reality, we were only better because we weren't starting from scratch like the rest of the world.

No bailout for the losers in Detroit--time for some Reconstruction up north.
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