Friday, January 08, 2021

The American Spirit

Sir John Keegan on the American GI's who arrived in Britain during WWII:

Americans did not defer; that was the first and strongest of the impressions they made. European travelers to the United States had made that observation even in the eighteenth century, and it was made wholesale by British observers of the GIs. In a society which worked by deference, there were many who were shocked by the upstandingness of the individual American soldier. Enlisted men did not know their place, and their officers seemed unconcerned by the free-and-easy ways of their men. Many of the British, who had been taught their place well, found they liked the Americans for their casualness and admired a system of discipline which worked by getting things done. American energy: that was the second impression. 
Keegan was just a boy when the Americans set up camp in his quiet patch of England. Another historian who served alongside them came away with similar opinions:

One was that they were unteachable. When America entered the war, we in Britian had been at war for more than two years. We had made many mistakes, and had learned something from them We tried to pass these lessons on to our new allies and save them from paying again the price that we had paid in blood and toil. But they wouldn't listen -- their ways were not our ways, and they would do things their way, not ours. And so they went ahead and made mistakes -- some repeating ours, some new and original. What was really new and original -- and this is my second point lastiing impression -- was the speed with which they recognized these mistakes, and devised and applied the means to correct them. This was beyond anything in my experience."

Bernard Lewis, "Second Acts,: Atlantic Monthly November 2007
In the First World War the British and French leaders knew that their hopes for victory rested on American troops. Their generals, however, had no confidence in American commanders. They wanted American soldiers to be incorporated into French and British armies. They bluntly informed General Pershing, that it would take thirty years for the American army to create a command and staff system capable of handling the millions of new draftees. (The US Army had increased ten-fold in less than 18 months).

Pershing's response was equally blunt: “It never took America thirty years to do anything”.

Bravado and energy are not enough – in fact they can be a dangerous combination without competence, Fortunately, the US was able to harness a great deal of competence in both world wars.

Winning a modern war requires more than just battlefield competence. At critical junctures in WWII great victories hinged on matters of logistics, repair, construction, and innovation. Without the Mulberry harbors, Pattorn has no chance to race across France; without the epic repair job (3 days) on the Yorktown after Coral Sea, the US Navy probably fails to win the decisive victory at Midway.

The three volumes of memoirs by Radm. Edward Ellsberg provide one of the best accounts of what American competence and energy can accomplish under even the most adverse conditions.

The net effect of our efforts in heat too intolerable for work was to produce the first Massawa miracle. One American officer and six American supervisors, using nothing—labor or materials or tools—that was not on hand in Massawa or thereabouts when we arrived, in only one month after my arrival had every sabotaged Italian shop in the naval base working at at least the full capacity intended by the Italians themselves; in some cases more. The United States Naval Repair Base at Massawa was fully ready for business the first week in May, 1942, and yet not one of the new outfit of shop machines ordered in America to make it serviceable had as yet been loaded for shipment out of New York!

Under the Red Sea Sun 

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