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Military Hubris Humbled
on 21 August 2011
An excellent study by Robert Kershaw of the destruction of Custer's force at the Little Big Horn in 1876 shows the consequences of under-estimating the enemy. It rests on deep research, careful analysis and is well-written. It smashes the mythology which has underlain Hollywood treatment of the battle and produced the cliche of the 7th cavalry riding to the rescue!
George Armstrong Custer's Civil War reputation was the product of luck, panache,ambition and self-confidence. Fighting a different enemy under different conditions made such quallities lead to disaster.
It's a sad tale of a general pushing his troops beyond reason in search of glory - exhaustion, hunger, thirst, lack of intelligence of terrain or enemy numbers and tactical naivety. Custer divided his 7th cavalry force into units which lost touch with each other due to the unexplored terrain. He took on an enemy outnumbering his total force in a manner which drastically increased the odds. He expected the enemy to run at the first sign of danger: they fought back with firepower exceeding his own, morale surpassing that of his force and physically better able to tackle such a chaotic fight. The fate of individual troopers is described in horrific detail - much based on archaeological evidence. Custer proved his own worst enemy - waiting to combine with General Terry would have provided greater force, keeping a tighter link to supplies of ammunition, food and water would have strengthened his troopers, combining more with subordinates (e.g. Reno & Benteen) might prevented such heavy losses, a better use of reconnaisance would have led to a very different, and more successful, outcome.
However, he wasn't solely responsible. His opinion of Sioux & Cheyenne military abilities was commonplace among the whites. General Crook worsted at the Rosebud but a few day's before didn't report any details to other commanders. The overall command were more involved in celebrating the Centennial in Washington and protecting their own reputations. The 7th had inadequate training (e.g. marksmanship) & lacked first-class equipment. The US Government expected too much from over-stretched forces controlling excessive areas occupied by inhabitants whipped into resistance by the greed and ambition of white intruders.
Before the British smile at the US discomfiture they should consider the British disasters at Isandhwana against the Zulus (1879) and in Afghanistan (1881) and against the Boers in 1881 and 1899. In all cases military hubris thrusts itself to the forefront of explanation.
Kershaw invites comparison with contemporary situations in which events didn't go as expected - Somalia (1993) and Afghanistan since 2001 are but two examples.