The Victory Disease
"To secure ourselves against defeat lies
in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is
provided by the enemy himself." - Sun Tzu 1
LIEUTENANT GENERAL William S. Wallace, the
U.S. Army's senior ground commander in Iraq said, "The enemy
we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against."2
Wallace's comment acknowledges a disturbing cultural phenomenon
that can be found throughout the U.S. military and society. The
problem stems from two necessary preconditions--demonstrated military
prowess and great national strength that make the Nation and its
military forces susceptible to a significant future defeat. Because
of the United States' vast strength, national and military leaders
might become overconfident in the Armed Forces' abilities and begin
to underestimate the enemy's capabilities, two practices that could
sow the seeds of disaster.
This cultural phenomenon manifests itself in
a mindset, sometimes referred to as the Victory Disease, which makes
a nation susceptible to defeat on future battlefields. Military
analysts James Dunnigan and Raymond Macedonia highlight the concept
of the Victory Disease in their work, Getting It Right: American
Military Reforms After Vietnam to the Gulf War and Beyond.3
According to Dunnigan and Macedonia, the Victory Disease threatens
a nation that has a history of military prowess and manifests itself
in three symptoms: arrogance, complacency, and established patterns
of fighting. As these symptoms compound, the result might be the
unanticipated defeat of a previously victorious nation.
The Victory Disease does not always lead to
battlefield defeat; it simply increases the likelihood of failure.
Since preconditions might exist for the United Sates to fall prey
to the Victory Disease, the question is whether the U.S. Army can
decrease the likelihood of military disasters in future operations.
The Victory Disease might occur across all
of the defined levels of war--strategic, operational, and tactical.
At the strategic level of war, the Victory Disease might afflict
a nation's citizens, national political leaders, and senior military
leaders. At the tactical and operational levels of war, the disease
might infect military leaders and planners.
To understand the Victory Disease, one must
first understand its symptoms. Historical examples illustrate the
symptoms of the disease and how they interact to bring about defeat.
Seldom are symptoms as obvious as they might appear. Hindsight enhances
the obviousness of the symptoms. One must avoid judging past leaders,
since clarity comes through the prism of historical analysis. The
danger comes from how easily and gradually the disease can creep
into the thinking of national and military leaders.
The Symptoms in History
Certain preconditions are requisite for the
Victory Disease to occur. A nation must be powerful militarily and
have a history of recent victories. Military forces that have recently
suffered an ignominious defeat are quick to analyze their failings
and take corrective action, while victorious militaries rarely analyze
their recent victories to improve. History records the Phoenix-like
rising of a defeated army more often than a victor's analyzing a
recent victory.4 Based on the requirement
for vast national strength and a proven military capability, the
United States is clearly susceptible to the Victory Disease. Once
these preconditions exist, the symptoms of the Victory Disease might
begin to flourish.
Arrogance. A nation with a strong, proven military
and a highly developed economy will display a national pride that
can easily develop into arrogance. National arrogance can lead to
an expectation for quick, decisive victories in almost any undertaking,
especially a military conflict. At the strategic level of war, senior
military leaders begin to believe that their vastly superior forces
cannot be defeated. At the operational and tactical levels of warfighting,
military units evince arrogance based on their unit's battlefield
victories. Perhaps the greatest problem with arrogance is that it
leads to unrealistic expectations, from the national level down
to the lowest unit.
Events that occurred near Fort Phil Kearney,
Wyoming, in the winter of 1866 illustrate an excellent example of
tactical arrogance. Fort Phil Kearney, near modern-day Sheridan,
was the site of significant contact between U.S. forces and hostile
Sioux during a period referred to as "Red Cloud's War."5
During the conflict, a brash young officer, twice awarded brevet
promotions for bravery during the American Civil War, displayed
a deadly level of arrogance.6 Captain
William J. Fetterman, only recently arrived from duties in the East,
boasted that with a mere 80 men, he could "ride through the
whole Sioux Nation," an enemy he ridiculed as being beneath
On 21 December 1866, Fettermen led his command
(eerily numbering 81 men) into a well-laid Sioux ambush. Every member
of his command was killed.8 Fettermen's
contempt for the Sioux's warfighting ability and his overconfidence
in his own military prowess and in the capability of his own mixed
force of infantry and cavalry illustrate the effect of arrogance
on a formerly victorious military leader.
The events leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur
War, which found the Israelis initially afflicted by the Victory
Disease, illustrate the symptom of national arrogance. Because of
their resounding successes during the 1967 Six Day War, the Israelis
believed their forces were superior to any Arab force. Compounding
this complacency was their dominance over the Arabs in three critical
areas: intelligence, air forces, and armored forces.9
Because of this arrogance, the Israelis posted only limited forces
along their borders with Egypt (in the Sinai, along the Bar-Lev
Line) and Syria (in the Golan Heights). They believed these forces
could delay an Arab offensive long enough to allow the Israeli Defense
Forces (IDF) to mobilize its reserves for another easy victory.
As an Israeli division commander put it, "The
common expectations from the IDF were that any future war would
be short with few casualties."10
This arrogance nearly cost Israel its first defeat at the hands
of its Arab enemies, a defeat that might have resulted in the complete
destruction of the Jewish state. This example is interesting in
that Israel's arrogance did not result in a defeat; however, the
conditions for failure existed, and the first several days of battle
were traumatic for Israeli leadership.
Complacency. As arrogance flourishes, the feeling
of invincibility creates a sense of complacency. Leaders begin to
tell themselves, "We can do this with one hand tied behind
our backs, so why get excited about it?" This complacency stems
from the arrogant belief that one's own forces are unstoppable and
invincible; thus, one might become complacent in the planning of
operations. For example, nowhere in planning is complacency more
evident than in analyzing the situation. A superficial understanding
of the enemy's culture will not determine accurately his likely
courses of action or how he might react to one's own actions.11
Complacency is also evident in the making of
superficial battle plans, a practice that stems from believing that
one's own military superiority is enough to ensure victory. Leaders
assume that the enemy is incapable of affecting friendly actions
because of the supposed superiority of friendly forces. This symptom
of the Victory Disease often develops during periods of peace and
leads to poor military performance at the outbreak of hostilities.
Following the Allied victory in World War II,
U.S. forces became complacent as they shifted from combat duties
to occupation duties. Adding to the complacency was the growing
belief that the new Atomic Era would reduce the need for ground
combat forces. Nowhere was this complacency more profound than in
the U.S. Eighth Army, which occupied Japan. These forces, consisting
of the 7th, 24th, and 25th Infantry Divisions and the 1st Cavalry
Division, were poorly equipped and inadequately manned and trained.12
The first element to respond to the 1950 North
Korean invasion was a 24th Infantry Division battalion, commanded
by Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith. The unit was rushed from
occupation duty in Kyushu, Japan, to a position 3 miles north of
Osan, South Korea. From this position, Task Force Smith was to block
the North Korean advance.13
Unfortunately, the soldiers of Task Force Smith
were unprepared for the mission. Occupation duty in Japan had severely
curtailed their training because Japan's crowded home islands lacked
adequate training areas for exercises larger than company-size.14
Occupation duty had also adversely affected discipline, leading
to a more relaxed command atmosphere than is normally found in frontline
combat units.15 Finally, as a result
of the limited need for large quantities of ammunition for occupation
duty, the soldiers of Task Force Smith were sent into battle with
inadequate supplies of ammunition, especially antitank ammunition.
As a result of this complacency, the men of Task Force Smith were
virtually brushed aside by the advancing North Korean 4th Infantry
Just as Task Force Smith found itself unprepared
for the outbreak of the Korean war, the Nation was unprepared for
the outbreak of the American Civil War almost 90 years previously.
At that time, the U.S Army was a miniscule instrument of security
on the western frontier. It was not organized or trained to conduct
the massive battles that would occur during the next 4 years.
Because of complacency, the U.S. Army had made
no improvements in its doctrine since the Mexican-American War in
the late 1840s. This failure to change doctrine is even more amazing
in light of the vast improvements in weapons technology that extended
the lethal zone between opposing forces from less than 150 yards
to more than 500 yards.16 National
complacency is perhaps most evident in the majority of Americans
who predicted a swift conclusion to the war that would result from
a single, climactic battle.17 This
complacent attitude was evident as many Union government officials
and residents of Washington, D.C., actually viewed the advance of
Union forces into Virginia for the First Battle of Bull Run.18
Civilian spectators, hoping to observe the battle and the defeat
of the Rebel army, rushed in confusion and fear from the battlefield
following the Confederate victory. The complacent Union populace,
taking the enemy for granted and expecting a rapid conclusion to
the war, was completely unprepared for the initial defeat.
Perceived national strength and a history of
success led to arrogance. Arrogance, in turn, led to complacency.
Because of the compounding nature of the symptoms of arrogance and
complacency, complacency sets national and military leaders up to
habitually use established patterns, thus making them highly susceptible
to losing the initiative if the enemy chooses to do something unexpected.
Using Established Patterns
As arrogance and complacency grow unchecked,
national and military leaders begin to believe that a standard approach
will work for many scenarios, but the use of patterns endangers
one's forces when fighting a thinking enemy. If a force uses a proven
pattern to solve similar tactical problems, and the enemy reacts
in a standard fashion, then the force will likely have success.
The danger comes about when the enemy refuses to play properly and
reacts in a new or different manner. Since a force afflicted by
the Victory Disease will have simply gone through the motions of
planning, unexpected enemy reaction will shock the friendly force
and allow the enemy to gain the initiative. Yielding the initiative
to the enemy becomes the most likely cause for defeat. The cumulative
symptoms of the Victory Disease will have had their effect; an enemy
who has learned to adapt will defeat the friendly force.
The British military experience during the
Zulu wars of the late 19th century illustrates the symptoms of the
Victory Disease. The native Zulu population of Southern Africa was
just another indigenous people for the British Army to defeat in
the Crown's colonization of Africa. Before fighting the Zulus, the
British Army had fought the Boers over possessions in southeastern
Africa, but much of the British colonial fighting experience came
about as a result of battles with the Xosas, the Pedis, and finally
the Gcalkas, the indigenous tribes of the region.19
The British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana
on 22 January 1879 illustrates the danger of a military force using
established patterns. When developing the campaign that led to the
Isandlwana defeat, British Commander Lord Chelmsford planned to
fight the Zulus in the same manner in which he had previously "fought
a messy little war on the Cape frontier to a successful conclusion."20
Unfortunately, the Zulus did not resort to guerrilla warfare as
previous opponents had done, but fielded an enormous army. Chelmsford's
forces were advancing in three converging columns. At Isandlwana,
the Zulu army attacked one of the unsuspecting British columns while
it was encamped and destroyed it nearly to a man.
The Battle of Isandlwana provided the British
Empire with the necessary impetus for eventually destroying the
Zulu Kingdom, but not before the British Army lost more than 1,300
soldiers. In this example, the negative effect of using established
patterns is evident. The enemy's reactions turned the tide of battle
against a British force afflicted by the Victory Disease.
The Japanese experience in World War II illustrates
on a national-strategic level the symptom of habitually using established
patterns. In this example, the Japanese revived a nearly 40-year-old
strategy in their attempt to secure a Pacific empire. In 1904, the
Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian Pacific squadron,
then in harbor at Port Arthur. Coupled with this naval attack was
a ground attack to defeat Russian forces in Manchuria. The goal
of this joint operation was "a victory so rapid and decisive
that Russia's superior resources could never be brought into play."21
Forty years later, when the Japanese perceived
the United States as a threat to their Pacific empire-building,
they chose a similar strategy of surprise attack against the U.S.
Navy's Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Simultaneously, they would
seize territory throughout the Pacific Rim and attempt to establish
a strategic defensive perimeter.22
The Japanese attempted a strategy similar to
their successful 1904 plan but on a much larger scale and with higher
returns if successful. However, there was also a likelihood of national
annihilation in the event of failure.23
For various reasons, the Japanese failed to strike a decisive enough
blow against the United States in 1941. The Allies were able to
reconstitute their forces and eventually defeat Japan in 1945.
Japan had pursued a national strategy that had brought great success
in the past, but which led to total defeat 40 years later. The habit
of using established patterns can leave a nation subject to defeat,
since all campaigns must be viewed from their own particular context.
The Compounding Nature of These Symptoms
The symptoms of the disease, building one on
the other, develop into a full-blown, possibly fatal, case of the
Victory Disease. The danger of the disease to U.S. forces is that
it can allow our enemies to easily predict our responses to given
stimuli. A basic principle of war the U.S. Army espouses is that
of maintaining the initiative in all military action, as opposed
to reacting to enemy actions. Since national and military leaders
suffering from the Victory Disease are likely to use an established
pattern, the enemy will be able to predict their actions and seize
the initiative. Thus, a military suffering from the Victory Disease
is quite likely to lose the initiative to the enemy. Herein lies
the greatest danger of the Victory Disease.
Based on this analysis of the symptoms' compounding
effect, one can see how this disease affects national and military
leaders. As the symptoms grow, the Nation and the military will
inch ever closer to failure. At the tactical level, a force that
succumbs to the Victory Disease is likely to lose a battle. At the
strategic level, the disease might yield a national failure.
Through the prism of historical analysis, the
symptoms of the Victory Disease are evident, showing clearly how
this disease grows within a military operation and leads to an increased
likelihood of battlefield defeat. As a result, we must find ways
to vaccinate national and military leaders to reduce the chances
of their falling prey to the deadly disease.
Armed with a thorough understanding of the
symptoms of the Victory Disease, the Nation begins its quest for
ways to vaccinate national and military leaders. Since the result
of the Victory Disease is failure, the need for a vaccine is clear
and the vaccine is so obvious that many cannot find it. Today, many
U.S. military leaders seek technology, such as computerized analytical
tools and sensors, to solve battlefield problems. In seeking a vaccine
for the Victory Disease, however, these technological solutions
The only real vaccine that will protect a nation
and its military from succumbing to the Victory Disease is awareness
of the disease's symptoms. The disease creeps into planning through
assumptions made during the planning process, but it bears its poisonous
fruit during execution. Thus, by continually testing the validity
of assumptions during the planning process, one can limit the possibility
of falling prey to the disease. Thus, an awareness of the symptoms
and understanding the root causes of the disease is the vaccine.
How to Administer the Vaccine
While seeking a vaccine that will negate Victory
Disease effects, it is important to remember that three primary
groups must be vaccinated: the nation's populace, its national leaders,
and its military leaders. Each group must be vaccinated in a different
way, but military leaders are the key to preventing the Victory
Disease's spread. Therefore, a vaccination program must begin at
Potential vaccinations for military leaders
come from a variety of sources. The Officer Education System could
offer an increased study of military history and highlight past
examples of the Victory Disease. Knowledge of the disease and its
symptoms would likely yield increased vigilance on the part of military
leaders and planners, making them less likely to succumb to the
disease's effects. The Army's planning doctrine is another source
of possible vaccines, because many of the symptoms of the Victory
Disease are rooted in assumptions generated during the planning
process. Thus, challenging one's assumptions during the planning
process is critically important and will ensure that the effects
of the Victory Disease will not find their way into the plan.
Once aware of the Victory Disease's effects,
the nation's military leaders are responsible for alerting national
leaders to the debilitating effects of the disease. Military leaders
might do this by highlighting the symptoms of the Victory Disease
as they arise in strategic planning, while resisting the opposite
extreme of over-cautiousness. Once aware of the concept of the Victory
Disease and its symptoms, national leaders must continually test
their assumptions throughout the planning process. The goal of educating
national leaders is to curb unrealistic expectations and to prevent
them from assuming that U.S. forces can quickly and decisively win
any battle at the cost of only a few friendly casualties.
National leaders have a responsibility to pass
on this newfound knowledge to the general populace. National leaders
must use the media to manage the perceptions of the American people
so that unrealistic expectations do not form. A common source of
these unrealistic expectations is the media. Once these expectations
form in the media, they are quickly transferred to the general populace.
If allowed to form, unrealistic expectations are a source of military
failure because they erode national support for a war effort, or
they can erode preparedness while seeking short-term financial savings.
As we study the after-action reports of operations
in Iraq, we must attempt to discern any indications of the Victory
Disease. The necessary preconditions clearly exist for the United
States to fall victim to the Victory Disease's effects. America's
position as the sole global super-power, combined with its vast
economic strength and history of military prowess, makes it an excellent
breeding ground for the Victory Disease. These characteristics are
all things to be proud of, but unfortunately, national pride has
the potential of developing into arrogance.
This article is not meant to criticize or erode
self-confidence within the U.S. military. It is meant to highlight
the need for constant analysis of enemy and friendly forces. The
U.S. military must constantly seek a better understanding of its
enemies and be wary of underestimating any potential adversary.
Likewise, national and military leaders must be cognizant of the
capabilities and limitations of their own forces to ensure they
are tasked according to those capabilities and limitations. The
goal is to ensure that the U.S. military is able to maintain the
initiative, force the enemy to react, and ultimately defeat any
adversary. Having been exposed to the potential for failure, the
U.S. Army must devote itself to increasing leader awareness and
diminishing the likelihood of falling prey to the Victory Disease.
1. Sun Tzu, The Art
of War, Chapter IV, Tactical Dispositions #2, on-line at <www.kimsoft.com/polwar4.htm>,
1 May 2003.
2. Lieutenant General
William S. Wallace, quoted in Rick Atkinson, "General: A Longer
War Likely: Ground Commander Describes Obstacles," The Washington
Post, 28 March 2003, A1.
3. James Dunnigan and
Raymond Macedonia, Getting It Right: American Military Reforms After
Vietnam to the Gulf War and Beyond (New York: William Morrow and
Company, Inc., 1993), 21.
4. Many historians and
military analysts cite the example of the German Army following
the invasion of Poland as a case in which a successful military
force honestly assessed its failings after a victory and made improvements
to its system and doctrine. Although this occurred, we must note
that while Adolph Hitler and his party elite were inspired by the
quick victory of German arms, Hitler's generals saw many deficiencies
in their system that they felt sure would be exploited by a more
competent adversary. Thus, this example could support either side
of this argument.
5. S.L.A. Marshall,
Crimsoned Prairie: The War Between the United States and the Plains
Indians During the Winning of the West (New York: Scribner's Sons,
1972), 83. Red Cloud's War was known as such because its Indian
architect was Ogallala Sioux chieftain Red Cloud. Red Cloud's War
is one of the few times in U.S. history in which the U.S. military
conceded to enemy demands and signed a treaty that contained provisions
unfavorable to the U.S. Government. As a result of the negotiations
that ended Red Cloud's War, the U.S. Army abandoned its forts along
the Powder River in Wyoming and Montana.
6. F.B. Heitman, Historical
Registry of the United States Army: From Its Organization, September
29, 1789, to September 29, 1889 (Washington, DC: The National Tribune,
1890), 436. The 19th-century army granted brevet (or honorary) promotions
for actions of great bravery.
7. Cyrus T. Brady, Indian
Fights and Fighters (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971),
8. Ibid., 24-32.
9. George W. Gawrych,
"The 1973 Arab-Israeli War: The Albatross of Decisive Victory,"
Leavenworth Papers, No. 21 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies
Institute, 1996), 5.
10. Avraham Adan,
On the Banks of the Suez: An Israeli General's Personal Account
of the Yom Kippur War (Jerusalem: Edanim Publishers, 1979), xii.
11. Douglas Scalard,
"People of Whom We Know Nothing: When Doctrine Isn't Enough,"
on-line at <www.cgsc.army.mil/milrev/English/julaug97/scalard.htm>,
22 February 2003. Aldous Huxley's concept of vincible ignorance
is appropriate in regard to the U.S. military's lack of emphasis
on cultural intelligence. Based on vincible ignorance, one knows
that he is ignorant of the enemy's culture but does not regard an
understanding of the enemy's culture as essential to victory. This
lack of cultural intelligence is unimportant since one's own force
is invincible and the enemy is virtually impotent.
12. Roy Flint, "Task
Force Smith and the 24th Division: Delay and Withdrawal, 5-19 July
1950," America's First Battles: 1776-1965, eds. Charles Heller
and William Stofft (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986),
13. Ibid., 277-79.
14. T.R. Fehrenbach,
This Kind of War (New York: MacMillan, 1963; reprint, Washington,
DC: Brassey's, 1994), 66.
15. Ibid., 66.
16. W. Glenn Robertson,
"First Bull Run, 19 July 1861," America's First Battles:
1776-1965, eds., Charles Heller and William Stofft (Lawrence: University
Press of Kansas, 1986), 86.
17. Ibid., 88.
18. John MacDonald,
Great Battles of the Civil War (New York: MacMillan, 1992), 12.
19. Lawrence James,
The Savage Wars: British Campaigns in Africa, 1870-1920 (New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1985), 32, 34-36.
20. Ian Knight, "The
Battle of Isandlwana: Wet with Yesterday's Blood," on-line
20knight.htm>, 13 December 2002.
21. Noel F. Busch,
The Emperor's Sword: Japan vs. Russia in the Battle of Tsushima
(New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 65.
22. R. Ernest Dupuy
and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History,
4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 1,232.
23. Busch, 218-20.